Review: “The Invisible Library” By Genevieve Cogman (Novel)

Back when I originally bought my copy of Natasha Pulley’s “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street“, I noticed another intriguing-looking steampunk novel mentioned on the website.

So, when I got back into reading once again, I bought a second-hand copy of Genevieve Cogman’s 2015 novel “The Invisible Library”…. and then didn’t get round to reading it until a month or three later.

So, let’s take a look at “The Invisible Library”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2015 Tor (UK) paperback edition of “The Invisible Library” that I read. And, yes, the shiny gold text and illustrations don’t really show that well in this scan.

The novel begins with a character called Irene working undercover as a cleaner in a boys’ boarding school. She is on a mission to steal a book from the school. However, the room the book is being kept in has some kind of magic-based security system. Needless to say, Irene is soon chased across the school grounds by an assortment of gargoyles and hellhounds. When she reaches a nearby library, she opens a paranormal doorway and steps through it…. into a much larger library.

Irene is a librarian, an agent of a vast timeless library that exists between an infinite number of parallel universes. The job of a librarian is to track down rare books from different universes in order to preserve them for eternity. However, soon after Irene hands the book in, she is given a new mission by her superiors.

She is instructed to take an apprentice librarian called Kai to a Victorian-like world and obtain an alternate version of Grimm’s fairytales. Of course, this mission quickly turns out to be much more complicated and perilous than Irene expected….

One of the first things that I will say about this book is that it was different to what I had expected and, at first, I didn’t like it. Although it really grew on me after a while (after all, it reminded me of a cross between TV shows like “Warehouse 13”, “Sliders”, “Doctor Who” and “Supernatural”, with strong hints of Sherlock Holmes too 🙂), “The Invisible Library” is much more of a fantasy novel than I had initially expected.

Yes, there are some really cool steampunk, thriller, sci-fi, detective and horror elements. But this is a fantasy novel first and foremost. It is also a novel where the mid-late parts of the story are much better than the earlier parts.

Although the novel’s fantasy elements can be quite innovative (such as librarians being able to command the world using words) and they do follow a fairly clear set of logical rules, the novel spends quite a while setting up all of these rules.

Likewise, the early to middle parts of the story can also sometimes seem like a random hodge-podge of every fantasy, steampunk and/or horror trope under the sun (eg: fae, dragons, vampires, werewolves, mechanical monsters, airships, magic etc..).

Still, it is well worth putting up with these problems. A lot of the more dramatic moments later in the story rely on you having a good knowledge of how the “rules” of the story’s world work. And the ending is just as, if not more, dramatic than anything in a large-budget Hollywood movie. So, it is worth trudging through all of the explanations and random stuff earlier in the novel.

Likewise, all of the other genres within this story work fairly well too. The thriller elements help to keep the story moving at a reasonable pace, the sci-fi elements are kind of cool, the steampunk stuff is suitably quirky, the story’s detective elements are an important part of the plot and the horror elements will catch you by surprise at a few points in the story too 🙂

Thematically, this story is really interesting. Not only is the contrast between chaos and order explored in this story, but it is also likened to the contrast between fact and fiction too. Likewise, the role of the library is also questioned too (eg: are they preserving books or just stealing and/or hoarding them? Is study for the sake of study worthwhile?). The novel also asks moral questions about whether the ends justify the means too (eg: the contrast between Irene and fellow librarian Bradamant’s approach to their jobs).

In addition to all of this, “The Invisible Library” is also a really interesting piece of meta-fiction about the value and role of books too (and, call me a luddite, but you really have to read this book in paperback. Seriously, it is a book about books. So, read the non-electronic version of it!).

As for the characters, I initially didn’t like them – but they grew on me after a while. In short, there is actual character development in this novel which results in the main characters becoming more interesting and sympathetic as the novel progresses.

So, even though Kai might seem like an annoyingly boorish brat and Irene might seem like a smug, prim, grammar-obsessed librarian at first – stick with the novel. The main characters, and the dynamic between them, slowly becomes more interesting as the story progresses. Likewise, it’s also really cool that one of the characters – Vale – is a homage to Sherlock Holmes, without being a direct copy of him. Plus, the novel’s other librarian characters are all suitably mysterious and/or scary too.

In terms of the writing, it is really good. Cogman uses a style of third-person narration that subtly evokes 19th century-style narration whilst still being readable and “matter of fact” enough to keep the story moving at a good pace. This novel is descriptive enough to be distinctive and atmospheric, whilst still remaining focused and compelling.

In terms of length and pacing, this story is excellent. There is a good mixture of faster and slower-paced scenes, and – given the amount of rules, backstory etc.. included in the story, not to mention the fact that it is both a fantasy novel and a modern novel – the book’s 329 page length is refreshingly concise and efficient too.

Plus, although it is clear that this novel is the first in a series, the main story is wrapped up reasonably well and there aren’t any seriously annoying cliffhangers (although the ending is obviously the set up for a larger series).

All in all, this is a good novel. Yes, it was different to what I had expected and it took me a while to get used to it. But, this novel is a quirky, complex thriller that builds up to a spectacular climax. There is good character development, reasonably good world-building, good pacing and an interesting mixture of genres here. If you like the steampunk genre and/or you like TV shows like “Warehouse 13”, “Doctor Who” and “Sliders”, then you’ll enjoy this book. However, it is more of a fantasy novel than you might initially expect and the story does take a little while to really get good.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get about a four.