Although this book was published in 2015, my library only acquired it in, or at least displayed it, in the middle of 2016. Right away, the beautiful navy and gold cover caught my eye. However, it was actually the small blurb on the back cover that convinced me that this was a book I had to read, at all costs. In essence, the book is about a young woman named Irene, who is actually “a professional spy for the mysterious Library, a shadowy organization that collects important works of fiction from all the different realities.” I don’t know about you all, but growing up, there were two careers I was really drawn towards: being a spy (hey Charlie’s Angels) and being a librarian (a dream almost every book lover has had — like forreal). Although I recognize that there’s no hope of me achieving either of those careers, it’s been difficult to discard that dream. And then comes along this book, that literally speaks to me in my soul (AKA gets my dream). Unfortunately, my need to read this book had to wait a while because other people were faster than me and borrowed it from the library before I could. Anywho, I finally got my hands on it this week and I’m super ready and excited to review it.
The book starts with an introduction to Irene. We see her on a book retrieving mission and get to understand what it is that she does, i.e. understand what her job entails. We’re also introduced to the Library; albeit this introduction is short and shallow. The book then moves onto the real adventure, i.e. another book retrieving adventure. After finishing her initial book job, Irene arrives back to the Library only to find out that she’s been given a new mission and a new protege, Kai. As the book is mainly from her POV, we don’t really know too much about Kai, aside from what Irene knows, which itself isn’t that much. Kai claims to be from an alternate reality and has been studying to become a Librarian (Irene’s official position is junior Librarian) for five years. He’s been itching to go on real fieldwork but he’s also quite mysterious when it comes to his past and behaviours. Regardless, Irene and Kai travel to another reality to retrieve the book they were assigned. However, when they get to the alternate dimension, it turns out that the book has already been stolen and that there’s also a lot of other people out to get it. So the two have their work cut out for them. That’s the basic, very, very basic gist of the story. Of course a lot of shit happens, but I’m refraining from writing it all down because I’d like it to be a nice surprise for readers when they read the book. That said, I will discuss some of the other aspects of the book, namely the characters and story.
Irene, as I’ve already mentioned, is the main character in this book. She’s actually pretty awesome. She’s very smart, witty, cool, nice, and an all around chill person. Basically, she’s everything you’d want your protagonist to be. But I’d also argue that she’s far more complex and quite relatable. For one thing, while she’s not completely confident about her abilities, she does in fact have confidence in them. She knows what she can do and she works hard on maintaining her abilities and acquiring new ones. She’s not a passive character at all. I also quite enjoyed her thought processes. In one passage, she remarks upon the trying position of being a leader. Usually, (even in books), people assume that being a leader means that you are in control of the situation, that you are confident in your abilities and those of your team, that you have an idea or two of what you’re doing, that you believe in your decisions and have knowledge to back them up. But in reality, it’s often the opposite. Having been in leadership positions, I have first hand felt the insecurity and fear that crops up when you have to make decisions or lead a group of people. Often times, you’re not even sure if the decision you’re taking is the right one. And there’s also the difficulty of trying to pretend like you know everything will be alright. Plus, whenever something goes wrong (something always does LOL), it’s on your head alone. It’s not the easiest job in the world. Or as Irene puts it, “A leader’s job was a crock of shit” (129). As the sentence also implies, Irene’s way of thinking is both fresh and relatable. Another characteristic of hers I really liked, was her way of dealing with her former commander, Bradamant. Bradamant is not the nicest of characters and when on missions with younger students, she tended to take all the credit and blame the students for any mistakes. Irene experienced this first hand so obviously she had some resentment toward Bradamant. But, as some of you can probably relate, resentment doesn’t necessarily mean hatred or indifference. And this is exactly what Irene experiences and remarks upon. When Brandamant is in danger, Irene cares, even if she doesn’t understand why she does. After all, the woman basically tried to ruin Irene’s career and yet Irene tries to help her even if she doesn’t want to (heart vs. mind). I found that instance just so understandable and relatable, having gone through such conundrums myself. Human emotions are so complex and being able to see them and understand them through the lens of fictional characters, is just something else. For me, it really helps me appreciate the complexity and the absurdity of our feelings. Irene was a really well thought-out character.
What I also quite enjoyed, was that despite being the main character, Irene was not always the one solving the entire mystery or noticing strange things. Okay well, disclaimer: she does end up solving the end of the mystery, but the blanks and other parts of it are filled in by others. One character who played such a role, was detective Vale. Unlike Irene and Kai, Vale was actually a resident of the alternative reality the two characters journeyed to. He gets entangled into their affairs as the story goes on and actually does quite a bet of deductive work. The author’s biography stated that the author was into Sherlock Holmes as a child, and I think Vale’s character is a reflection of that. He’s very perceptive and notices minute details. If anything, I’d have to say that at times, he was actually a better investigator than Irene as she had the tendency to get lost in her thoughts and forget to surveil her surroundings. Vale’s character also sort of functioned as proxy for readers as he often posed questions about the Library and the general book world to Irene. It is through his questions and reasoning that we get a glimpse into the workings of the library (along with Irene’s thoughts). While I did appreciate that, for me, Vale also sort of fell short as a character. I’m not quite sure if this was Genevieve Cogman’s goal, but Vale came across as your stock, oldish/middle aged English detective. He came from a reasonably well-off family but pursued detective-hood (?), has a nice house with lots of books, is friends with the police, is very knowledgeable about the seedy underbelly of his alternative dimension, and is often on guard. Maybe I’ve been reading too many Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie) books or watching too much Elementary (hello Sherlock Holmes), but Vale just came across as so stereotypical. Mind you, it’s not a terrible thing. It’s just sort of predictable. But part of me wonders if this was done purposefully. I mean, this is a book about libraries and books and it would be pretty much in character (LOL) to introduce and use the trope of the typical detective. I mean, Irene even remarks upon her affinity for detective novels and characters when thinking about Vale. So maybe it was just Genevieve Cogman being ironic? Not sure but just something to think about I guess.
On the topic of predictable, we also have Kai functioning as the arch-type sidekick to Irene. Whenever she needs help, he’s there to lend a hand. She bounces ideas off him. He challenges her with his ideas (though they aren’t always right LOL). He’s referred to as her assistant in the back book blurb and he just functions as that. Although he’s also sort of mysterious (actually, it’s not that mysterious because Irene, being a sharp little cookie she is, manages to uncover his secret pretty quickly so when the truth does come out, she’s not that shocked and nor is the reader), he’s also quite predictable. But again, just like there was nothing wrong with Vale being predictable, there’s nothing wrong with Kai being predictable. And to be honest, I quite enjoyed having Kai around. A lot of the times, at least with mystery, adventure novels (at least some of the more popular ones), the main character is usually a boy who is a dynamic hero with some other sidekicks, or the main character is a girl who transforms from a damsel in distress to a warrior through the help of some other characters. But here, the main character is a woman, who is self assured, confident, and smart. She’s able to figure out things on her own and can save herself. Instead, the male protagonist functions as a side kick, who learns from her and even gets saved by her. He respects her and her mind and understands her authority. I just, I found it a nice change and quite inspiring as well. We need more women protagonists like Irene; smart, complex, and flawed.
Now coming to the story. If you haven’t been able to glean from my review, the world building in this novel is complicated. Briefly put, the Library exists in this timeless (?) dimension with doors leading to other alternate realities. These other alternative realities are all different realities of Earth, but they have different laws governing them. For example, there were worlds that combined magic and technology (aka Cyborgs and other machinery). There were worlds that focused strictly on magics like necromancy, spells, and gargoyles. There were worlds without any magic (aka our version of Earth). And then among the various possibilities that existed, there were worlds that were “chaos-infested” which meant that the balance between magic and natural order tipped toward magic resulting in the creation and sustenance of supernatural beings (vampires, fairy folk, werewolves) and magic alongside other non-magical humans. Sometimes, these parallel dimensions also had different histories, resulting in different historical events. So for example, in the alternative London Irene and Kai travel to, India functions as a trader partner to the British rather than being colonized by them. So basically, a very complicated premise, well depending on how you see it. Personally, I quite enjoyed the world building as I’m a huge fan of fantasy. But at the same time, I was definitely a little confused at times when it came to trying to understand this new world/ dimension idea. Maybe I just need things to be a little bit more spelled out for me.
However, despite the complicated world, I really enjoyed the sense of adventure that the novel presented. As mentioned earlier, the novel, in essence, is about the adventure Irene and Kai go on in order to complete their mission of retrieving the book they were assigned. I had a lot of fun reading the book (and imagining myself as a professional book spy LOL). And it also helps that Genevieve Cogman is a pretty good writer. I was able to imagine quite a few scenes very easily and I very much enjoyed how her writing steered clear of overly complicated descriptions (it was already complicated enough LOL!) and stuck to describing things in an easy-to-imagine manner. Particularly, I quite enjoyed how she didn’t really ascribe her characters to a specific race (or maybe that might just be my ignorance?). It really helped me imagine the characters any way I wanted and helped me get into the skin of Irene (although the fact that she was described as being 5’9 kinda made me sad haha). And finally, I’m a huge fact of the fan that Genevieve Cogman plans on making this a series and continue fleshing out the characters she introduced in this book (or at least I hope for the latter!). I’m really excited to see how she gets back to this world and what new adventures await the two/ trio, along with how the other mysteries posed near the end of the book get solved!
My rating: definitely read it if you love books, like adventure, enjoy mystery novels, and want to be inspired by a cool female protagonist!