2014’s The Invisible Library is the first volume in Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library series.
The Invisible Library exists outside time itself. It is a repository of books gathered from many timestreams: worlds where science, reason, and logic reign supreme, worlds of fantasy, worlds tainted by chaos. Irene, child of two Librarians, was born to her role. She is a book scrounger supreme, adept at infiltrating alternate worlds, locating specific rare books, and stealing them for the Library.
Ideally, she does this without leaving any trace of her involvement. As the opening scene of the novel establishes, sometimes she has to settle for legging it with the goods while pursued by gargoyles. It’s a living.
With her new junior partner, the inhumanly attractive Kai, Irene is dispatched to a particularly chaos-tainted version of London, there to locate and retrieve a unique version of Grimm’s fairy tales. The degree to which chaos holds sway in this London is somewhat alarming, but Irene is well-trained and experienced. As long as there are no unexpected complications, the mission should be a quick find and grab.
There are unexpected complications.
A: Irene’s rival Bradamant is suspiciously well-informed about Irene’s upcoming mission. Bradamant is keen to take the mission (and Kai) away from Irene, and not because she is concerned for either Irene or Kai’s well-being.
B: Lord Wyndham, the current owner of the book in question, has just been brutally murdered. Lord Wyndham was a vampire, and killing him would not have been easy.
C: The notorious cat-burglar Belphegor was seen exiting Lord Wyndham’s mansion the night of the murder. Coincidence? Or has the mysterious burglar added vampire-slayer to her Homeric epithets?
D: Consulting detective Vale, the local answer to Sherlock Holmes, takes a close interest in Irene.
But all that may not matter because the dastardly Alberich wants the Grimm for himself. Alberich is the only person who has ever betrayed the Library and survived to brag about it. The Invisible Library treats him with the utmost caution. What chance could one experienced field operative and her inexperienced side-kick have against the one man the Library fears?
Cogman’s world-building choices allow her alternate worlds to range from super-science to high fantasy. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that she boasts an impressive CV as a game designer. Among her projects; a 2009 work for Steve Jackson Games, GURPS RPG. GURPS is a universal game engine that has been adapted to settings from super-science to high fantasy.
Readers of a more seasoned vintage may see similarities to Piper’s Paratime; like the Paratimers, the Library is powerful, very firm about suppressing knowledge of their existence, keen on putting the various timelines’ work to good use (as the Library sees it) regardless of what benighted locals might want. Unlike the Paratimers, the Invisible Library acknowledges other powers (dragons, living embodiment of law, as well as the various forces of chaos) as equals, allies, or rivals to be treated with caution.
Readers of more recent vintage may see a kinship between this series and Schwab’s Shades of Magic, in that both involve powerful factions extending across timelines. Or they may see a reminder of Taylor’s St. Mary’s books.
Schwab: grim. Cogman: not. Taylor: funny. Cogman not so much. But what she does works in its own way.
The Invisible Library succeeds on several levels. It functions as a standalone adventure, pitting two field agents and their local ally against the biggest of big bads1. It serves to introduce the series as a whole without bogging down in world-building minutiae. I cared about the characters and I was eager to see what happened next. A pleasant interlude in a tired reviewer’s day.
1: The book does not make a strong case that one should consider the Invisible Library as the good guys, but I don’t think that it’s playing a white-hat/black-hat game.