The Short Version: Father is missing, possibly dead. The Librarians are unable to return to the Library and left to their own devices, out in a world that they can control but cannot understand. But Carolyn has a plan – one that might very well change the nature of reality itself… if she (and the world) can survive it.
The Review: I’d like to propose a certain subset of books, mainly for conversational classification as opposed to any genre/critical meaning. This subset of books would include only books where the author (or authors) unleash an absolutely wild imagination on a fantastical/magical topic and their joy is evident on the page, so evident that it infects the reader. The Supernatural Enhancements is a terrific example of this. So too is every issue of The Wicked + the Divine. The reason Night Film is not, although I love that book more than any of these others, is that it doesn’t go a little crazy. That’s the key, I think: there should come a couple of moments where the audacity of the author maybe makes you sputter for a moment, before you shake your head and grinningly plow on.
The Library at Mount Char is such a book. Scott Hawkins, in his first time out of the gate, has delivered a book that just runs rampant with its reader – every time you think something crazy has happened, something crazier happens just a few pages away. But it never feels like he’s trying to top himself or artificially manufacture crazy things; they all feel logical and understandable in their craziness. The result is just a damn fun ride through a clearly top-notch imagination.
There’s a lot of world-building only tangentially alluded to, here. The Library is the domain of a guy called Father (or Adam Black or Ablakah) who isn’t exactly God but he’s not not a god either. He has a ton of knowledge, is the thing – and he’s gathered children, once human and now decidedly more-than, to learn that knowledge as well. But Father is gone, they can no longer get into the Library, and to call them fractious would be an altogether too generous term. Hawkins reveals that each of them has a primary focus – war, communing with animals, healing, languages, etc – and their complex interplay is not explained to us but rather left for the reader to put together as we go, using our brains to interpret. It’s a small distinction, but I just read Kyle Buchanan’s excellent Vulture article asking movies to stop explaining everything and I think the same can be said for books: let the audience figure it out, because we’re smarter than you think. Hawkins knows this and doesn’t suck the fun or mystery out of the proceedings by stopping for exposition.
Things take off from this opening, interspersed with some flashbacks to the children’s history in the Library (including two truly harrowing scenes involving a giant grill and a crucifixion via fountain pen). We’re introduced to some human characters – Steve and Erwin, two pretty ordinary guys who (inevitably) aren’t so ordinary for one reason or another. At first, there’s a question of why we’re following these people when we could be following the stranger (and thus “more interesting”) Librarians – but Hawkins dispatches with that as he adds both nuance to the characters and some of the aforementioned ridiculousness to both of their experiences. The reader who gets to the point where two lions become essentially supporting characters should not be surprised or put off, but only more excited that they’re now a part of the fun. And when Erwin stops by the Oval Office, the hilarity of the scene is bested only by the tag on the end of it.
Things do get a little fuzzy as the story builds to its climax. Although the ultimate explanation-flashback for Carolyn (cleverly built into the story as part of a larger plan) does a great job of explaining things, there’s still a little bit of a sense of it all getting a touch too large to contain. I won’t give away what happens, exactly, but as the world gets increasingly dangerous and strange, the narrative retreats inward. It’s not that the apocalypse would’ve been more interesting but rather… rather that the goal doesn’t seem to’ve been quite so well thought through, to be as vague as I can be about it (as I really don’t want to spoil anything about what goes down).
But Hawkins makes a point, several times throughout the novel, to pepper in the idea of “regression completeness theory”: the hypothesis that the universe is infinitely complex, to the point that you’ll never be able to understand it because there will always be a layer underneath whatever you’ve understood that you cannot understand. It is Father’s (and then Carolyn’s) desire to know more, be able to achieve more – and Father, based on the number of tomes in the Library, has certainly learned and discovered a lot… but even he has questions, things that’ll never be answerable. So, too, does Carolyn… and Steve… and, frankly, the reader. The complexity grows as the novel continues and Hawkins buys himself a way out by having this theory already well established for the reader by the time they hit the wall (it’s not a brick wall, it’s like maybe just some drywall or something that you could push through with enough force but also you probably just sort of thud into it) in the last movement of the book.
But this haziness of conclusion – and it should be said, the actual ending of the book is quite clear – does little to diminish the outsized adventure that came before. This is the sort of book where a character opens a tome to “Chapter Eleven: Notes on the Subjugation of the Martially Superior Foe” and we turn the page to find that chapter eleven of THIS book also bears that same title. I cackled at that, because it’s exactly the sort of winking joy that had made the book so fun so far – and you get the sense that that’s maybe exactly why Hawkins did it: for the fun of it all.
There are other little things like this throughout, little moments where Hawkins adds just a dash more than other authors might in order to make the reader have that much more fun. Don’t get me wrong, this is a scary book – there are some dementedly scary/bloody/creepy moments – but in the best October spirit, it’s serving it both ways at the same time. It ends up being an immediately memorable novel, full of ideas and fantastical situations that stick with you because you’ve never quite heard anything like them before. Or, if you have, you’ve never heard them in quite this way – and that, my friends, is refreshing as hell.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. The ending wobbles a little bit but Hawkins has pulled together an absolutely delightful, fantastical romp that has (as one character puts it) “the control of reality” at stake – and you actually believe it. As with Edgar Cantero’s great The Supernatural Enhancements, I was left wanting (somewhat desperately) to know more – what about Barry O’Shea and Q-33 North and the Duke?! Who are they?! What do they look like?! I want more of this fantastical world hidden underneath our own!! – but also so happy that I didn’t get more. The book kept me hungry and happy throughout, joyously rushing towards the final page. I can’t wait to see what Hawkins does next, because his first trick was a hell of a start.