When you have a fantasy series built around a multiverse of dragons, fae, and interdimensional Librarians who acquire books and texts to stabilize worlds, you can play in a lot of subgenres. From political intrigue to interdimensional rescue to murder mystery, the possibilities are diverse, also given the varieties of worlds and settings. So a straight up heist story is, in the end, delightfully and axiomatically inevitable as one of the forms a writer with such a canvas might want to try out. So it is with the latest Genevieve Cogman’s novel, The Secret Chapter, sixth in the Invisible Library series.
Briefly, the series centers around Irene Winters, an up-and-coming Librarian and her apprentice Kai, who just so happens to be a dragon. Their time- and world-hopping adventures see them face off against traitorous Librarians, duplicitous fae, overbearing and very dangerous dragons—and more—with Cogman dialing up the fun, wordplay, and humor. They tend toward similar basic structures that work—a first chapter where Irene gets herself caught into an adventure going wrong, extracts herself from it, and then moves on to the real story. It works for James Bond movies, it works for Genevieve Cogman.
In this latest novel we start to delve more into Irene’s background. The very nature of Librarians means their pasts are a matter of obfuscation and dissembling. Their names are pseudonyms, chosen from literature by the prospective Librarian. If you remember that the first novel, The Invisible Library, had strong elements of Sherlock Holmes (including a consulting detective character, Vale), you will quickly figure out where Irene got her name. Irene’s home world is slipping toward Chaos, and to prevent that, in typical Library fashion, Irene needs to get a copy of a very rare book. That quest will lead Irene (and her former apprentice Kai) to an underwater lair straight out of Dr. No, and put her in the midst of a heist with a bunch of strangers, with the book as the promised payment for a little job. Or a big job, given the size of the painting that Mr. Nemo wants in exchange. And if you think that the other heist members have their own agendas and reasons for doing the heist, you’re getting the picture of The Secret Chapter.
Cogman effortlessly slips into the story a motley set of characters Irene and Kai have to forge a working relationship with. All have their secrets and agendas, none more than Indigo. Indigo is a dragon, captive to Nemo, and it is not hard to figure out what her price for getting the painting (“The Raft of the Medusa”) is. In Cogman’s world, the fae fall into archetypes, and events around them fall into prescribed stories with definitive beats and patterns. It is a hazard of dealing with the chaotic fae, and it should not surprise the reader that in a meta-sense, Irene’s adventure here very much cleaves to (and tries to break away from, knowingly) those archetypes. One of the heist members falls early, as an example. Secret identities, secret agendas, a revelation about what Nemo really wants are all part of the plot. Trappings of an undersea secret lair. Shifting loyalties.
To judge the quality of a heist story with twists and turns, revelations and double dealing is, look at it from the beginning and to see if things were laid down that point toward the ultimate conclusion. Twists and turns for the sake of twists and turns without an internal logic is just chain-yanking. Twists and turns and a revelation of the true state of affairs that makes sense from the beginning once the curtain is unveiled is not an easy writing feat to pull off. Happily, with a multiverse, characters, and rules long established in previous novels, Cogman expertly goes through the paces of the form. I think the heist especially works with a reader aware of the conventions and tropes, to see how the gears work, and to see when they crash and clash against expectations. There is also a great sense of place in the set pieces of the novel. If you are going to have a heist in an exotic location, you need to bring it to the readers. Here, Cogman uses Vienna as her backdrop, and she brings it to life. Did I look at websites for airfares, wondering if I might visit the city sometime (I’ve never been)? Did I look up what precisely sachertorte is? Reader, I confess I did both.
Another feature of this novel in particular and Cogman’s Invisible Library novels in genre is the breezy and easy use of references and allusions. Being a series about an interdimensional Librarian who is (usually) looking for books, peppering the text with outright and subtle references to films, stories and novels is a treat. I had never heard of the ballet Coppelia, for example, until I realized that Irene’s superior’s code name must map to a literary reference (just as Irene’s does) and went a-googling to find out about the ballet.
Best of all, like the previous novels, Cogman slowly builds up her world, and her characters, and continues that here. We see scenes of Irene with her parents and get a greater sense of who she is. She’s grown and changed over the six novels, so that when the Fae Lord Silver calls her “little mouse”, it feels distinctly different than it did back in The Invisible Library. Events of previous novels, including the Dragon-Fae Treaty, Kai and Irene’s relationship, and Kai’s status within his family all get developed here. And the revelations engendered from Nemo’s plot further develop the world in ways that I had not considered before, but in retrospect is a case of “why didn’t I think of THAT?”. What started off as a relatively light and frothy debut novel in the series (The Invisible Library) has become an interesting and complex edifice for a series where Cogman manages to tell fun stories that extend the world and characters. Although the tone and style are completely different, the building up from deceptively light origins reminds me of Charles Stross’ Laundry Files novels.
I can’t commend this book to a first time reader of the series. It’s an excellent addition, perhaps the best yet in some respects, but it’s not an entry point for new readers. Readers who have read the previous novels will find much to love here. And to those new to Cogman, I recommend you start with The Invisible Library.
The Secret Chapter is available from Ace Books.
An ex-pat New Yorker living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading sci-fi and fantasy for over 30 years. An avid and enthusiastic amateur photographer, blogger and podcaster, Paul primarily contributes to the Skiffy and Fanty Show as blogger and podcaster, and the SFF Audio podcast. If you’ve spent any time reading about SFF online, you’ve probably read one of his blog comments or tweets (he’s @PrinceJvstin).