In my last post, I talked about the joy of easily taking books down from my shelves which I knew would be good, despite having not yet read them, or, if not good then at least not trash. I don’t know how The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins came to be in my possession—that is, I know I bought it, but I don’t remember why as I have no memory of it being recommended to me and I usually avoid first novels by people who do not come highly recommended by a trusted source—but, delightfully, it was another such novel: a good one as yet unread.
In fact, The Library at Mount Char is very good. One of the best contemporary fantasy novels I’ve read to date (though I admit I don’t read as widely in this genre as I might, though I’m slowly pushing to change that). Our protagonist in this novel is a young woman named Carolyn (I seem to have been reading a lot of novels featuring Carolyns and Carolines lately) who has been raised by her father (actually not her father but a supreme deity of some sort) along with 11 other men and women since childhood to be apprentice librarians in his secret, otherworldly library containing all of the knowledge in this world and in others. Carolyn’s specialty is languages—the usual ones like French and Mandarin, but also animal languages, the language of storms, and that sort of thing. Her siblings all have their own specialties, too: warfare, healing, communing with the dead, et cetera. Each has their own color coded catalog from which they have been studying for most of their lives, and since to study in the catalog of another is very strictly forbidden, they are each highly specialized and highly dependent upon each other and their father (who, of course, has handwritten the entire library himself).
The novel opens with the reconvening of the siblings who have all been wandering the earth looking for their mysteriously vanished Father who has, in vanishing, blocked their access to the library which has been their home and, in a sense, the source of their knowledge and thus of whatever parts of their power not yet committed to memory. The majority of the book details their continued search for their Father, which brings them to the attention of law enforcement and introduces a smattering of other characters unschooled in magic but often helpful and always colorful nonetheless. In their quest, they enlist the help of everyone from a mortal tiger king named Nobununga to Mrs. Gillicutty, a lonely widow who bakes trays full of brownies for a son who is never coming home. We also learn the backstory of the library and how they all came to be there, of course, and the intricacy of this plot coupled with the dominant one following their quest is given to us slowly, tantalizingly, but always clearly and naturally. There’s little to none of that painfully orchestrated exposition that often leaves me rolling my eyes when reading fantasy novels.
Aside from a marvelously constructed and executed plot, what attracted me so much about this novel was, I think, the character Carolyn. She became one of my favorite literary characters (and, as a side note, I’m very pleased that this book sits on my shelf right beside Dalva by Jim Harrison because Dalva is another of my favorite literary characters and I like to think of the two of them becoming friends). It’s hard to put my finger on why exactly I like her so much: she’s brutal, often manipulative and blind to her own faults in a way that endangers a lot of people around her including ones she’s supposed to care very much about. At one point, she sends a father/daughter duo of lions to their deaths, and in pretty much any other circumstance, even the merest suggestion of unkindness—let alone cruelty—to animals is enough to make me hate a person, real or imagined. Despite all of this, though, I admired her and also just became genuinely fond of her over the course of the book—she’s brilliant and bookish and resourceful, self-sacrificing but not a martyr, generous even when circumstances dictate that she must also be selfish. She’s clever and flawed in ways that are so understandable, and I found myself relating to her in weird ways I wouldn’t have thought possible given our vastly different circumstances.
I don’t have any particularly poignant quotes to pull out from this book to demonstrate to you all the power it has to move one; this isn’t that sort of book, though I found it immensely moving. It is very much so plot and character driven rather than a demonstration of poetic prowess. The writing is though, as I have mentioned above, clear and natural and, important in a book of nearly 400 pages, always efficient. Hawkins doesn’t skimp on the one-liners, though, which does get a bit tiresome as the novel progresses, though I didn’t find it too distracting. But, again, I would recommend this book on the strength of Carolyn alone. I do wish some of the other characters had been fleshed out as well as she was, but I also concede that perhaps there wasn’t space. I don’t know that this book would work as a series, though the ending is left open to that possibility. I would have liked to learn more, too, about how the magic in this book works, and what’s going on with the other universes that are frequently mentioned but never discussed in much detail. The book is long as is though, especially for a first novel, so I can understand, even if I’m still frustrated by, the decision to end where it did and to leave some threads a bit unraveled.
I will say, in closing, that I sped through this book, wandering away from our unpacking to sit down outside for just a page or two and returning an hour later still wanting more time to read. If no other part of my glowing review has convinced you yet, consider this: I held the book up in front of my face to keep reading while I carried two weeks’ worth of dirty laundry down three flights of stairs and then again while I hauled it all back up those stairs. This book pulled me in hard, and I’m sure it will do the same for others. I cannot wait to get my hands on Hawkins’s next book and I fervently hope he’s hard at work on it as I write this.