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.

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Review: “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” By Natasha Pulley (Novel)

Well, since I’m taking an extended break from reading Clive Cussler novels, I thought that I’d check out a steampunk/magic realist novel from 2015 called “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” By Natasha Pulley.

I bought a second-hand copy of this book sometime last year for some reason that I can’t quite remember. Then it ended up languishing on the pile of books and DVDs next to my computer until about three weeks after I finally got back into reading books again.

So, let’s take a look at “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street”. This review will contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS, but I’ll try to avoid major ones.

This is the 2016 Bloomsbury (UK) paperback reprint of “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” that I read.

“The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” begins in Victorian London, when a Home Office telegraphist called Thaniel Steepleton returns to his lodgings after a long day at the office, only to discover that a mysterious intruder has left a gold pocket-watch in his room.

The mystery only seems to deepen when, several weeks later, an alarm goes off inside the watch that narrowly saves him from a terrorist attack. Shocked and bewildered, Thaniel decides to track down the man who made the strange watch…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is clever. It is also whimsical, dramatic, occasionally thrilling/suspenseful, bewildering, bittersweet and heartwarming. But, most of all, it is clever. This is probably due to being slightly out of practice with reading novels but, reading this novel felt like trying to play a computer game on a machine that is only just within the system requirements. I even had to take detailed notes at various points because I was worried about forgetting some small, but crucial, plot detail. But, this novel is worth persevering with because it is one of those books that will make you go… “wow!“.

Seriously, the atmosphere of about the first sixth or so of the book is utterly beautiful. It’s the kind of vivid, cosy, fascinating and whimsical thing that – in emotional terms- reminded me a bit of watching Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away“. As the story progresses, the story’s tone and atmosphere changes slightly – including elements of tragedy, suspense, mystery, comedy, fantasy, science fiction, unease and emotional drama. Not to mention that parts of this novel also read a little bit like a slowly to moderately paced thriller novel too.

And, did I mention that this book is clever too? In addition to lots of utterly brilliant descriptions, some clever name choices (eg: Filigree Street looks like filigree on the map, Grace Carrow is anything but graceful etc..) and some well-placed historical/scientific references (eg: Gilbert & Sullivan, a painting made by “a depressed Dutchman”, a character accidentally discovering part of Einstein’s theory of relativity etc..) – the story is also filled with what TV Tropes refers to as “fridge brilliance“.

This is where part of a story only makes sense after you’ve thought about it for a while. And there are so many examples of this here. For example, the antagonistic relationship between two characters won’t fully make sense until you reach a later part of the story (and then think about it). Or an event earlier in the story won’t make sense until you know something else about a particular character. This novel is like an intricate clockwork mechanism where everything happens for a reason. And, yes, this even includes the more fantastical elements of the story, which often follow some kind of logic.

The narration in this story is absolutely beautiful too. Pulley uses a style that is evocative of 19th century writing, but which is also still very readable to modern audiences. The narration is descriptive and rich, without ever really doing this just for the sake of showing off (unlike some “literary” novels). The narration also has a quirky playfulness to it that both adds to the stylised Victorian atmosphere of the story, whilst also serving as a vehicle for all sorts of brilliant observations/descriptions.

The novel’s characters are really interesting too, with all of the main characters (Thaniel, Mr. Mori, Grace, Matsumoto, Six and Katsu) being misfits in some way or another.

Not only is there a lot of characterisation in this novel but the relationships betwen the characters are also absolutely fascinating too. Although the characters’ relationships with each other can be prickly, bitter or depressing at times, the nature of friendship is a major theme in this novel and it leads to some absolutely beautiful and heartwarming moments.

There are also more themes in this story than you can shake a stick at, and all of them are handled in really interesting ways. Since it would take ages to talk about all of them, I’ll talk about three of the most important ones in this review.

Fate and free will are major themes in this story, and they are explored in all sorts of interesting ways. It’s difficult to talk about this without spoiling one of the most interesting parts of the story. But, to use a less spoilerific example, the story includes an adorable clockwork octopus called Katsu that has been designed to act in a randomised way. Yet, this random machine often acts like a sentient creature with a personality. And, as I write this review, I’ve just realised the paradox inherent in designing something to be random.

The story also focuses on the relationship between Victorian Britain and Meiji-era Japan too, with both being shown to be very similar in all sorts of subtle ways. For example, in the chapters set in Japan, the novel mostly eschews the typical stylised portrayal of samurai etc.. and often just talks about “castles”, “knights”,”lords”, “barons” etc.. in a way that is reminiscent of British history. Both countries’ languages are also shown to contain quirky historical oddities. Likewise, both Victorian Britain and Meiji-era Japan are shown to be grappling with modernisation. Plus, both countries are shown to have their fair share of stiflingly formal and oppressive traditions too.

Time is also a major theme in this story and it is explored in all sorts of interesting ways. To give a less spoilerific example – although the novel is set in the 19th century, there’s a lot of subtle modern stuff in there. Not only is the telegraph depicted as being similar to a modern instant messenger program at times, but the novel also contains a modern-style theme of terrorism and there are also a few other sneaky modern references too (such as the 19th century Lord Leveson appearing, presumably as a subtle topical reference to the 2011-12 Leveson Inquiry).

In terms of length, this story is absolutely perfect. Unlike many tome-like modern novels, this novel is a more sensible 318 pages in length, and each of these pages matters. Seriously, this novel crams as more storytelling, depth, richness, atmosphere and complexity into 318 pages than some writers would manage to include in 500.

All in all, this novel is absolutely beautiful. Yes, it probably isn’t for everyone and it can be a little bit of a challenge to read at times. But, it is adorably eccentric, subtly compelling, intelligently complex, intricately crafted, heartwarming, nervously suspenseful, and completely unique. It’s the kind of novel where you find yourself thinking “there really should be a film adaptation of this” before realising that even the most well-directed film would struggle to capture exactly what makes this novel so unique, immersive and fascinating.

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

Short Story: “Trance” By C. A. Brown

The secret to going into a trance is the music. Sure, people might try to sell you speed-reader guff about reading every other line or only reading books that use New Standard Narration. But, the secret to becoming one with your paperback (and, yes, hardbacks are for poseurs) is choosing the right music. Of course, as the oldies keep telling us, this used to be much easier before the Great Flare of ’75 fried every piece of silicon to a crisp.

But, if you can dig up a good X-Ray plate roentgenizdat record from one of the old 20th Century Soviet Republics, then you can squeeze in an extra hundred words a minute. The trick is choosing something fast enough and listening to it often enough that your conscious mind blocks it out as background noise. Once this happens, your subconscious mind treats the music as a metronome. You start reading in time with it and it’s like souping up your brain with nitro fuel.

And, talking of souping up your brain, don’t let the powder peddlers fool you. You’ll find at least one of them in any library and they’ve got their sales patter down to a fine art. Don’t fall for it.

Best case scenario, you’ll end up with a pouch of vintage spine dust culled from the parts of the library no-one visits. Worst case scenario, you’ll be able to read nine hundred words a minute until you burn out. This might sound good on paper, but you won’t remember a single word of it. Which kind of defeats the point.

Of course, as essential as good music is to trancing out and losing yourself in a paperback, you’ve gotta be careful. Because libraries never fully went over to silicon chips, they were one of the few parts of the world that didn’t get royally fractured when the solar flare hit.

As such, they’re almost as bad as churches when it comes to traditions. Even second-generation librarians, born in carbolic-smelling wards shrouded in the inky darkness of a thousand flare-fried electric lanterns, have an eerie obsession with silence.

Apparently, before the flare, there were these things called ear-buds that you could use as a cloaking device for your music. They’re even mentioned outside of the science fiction section. An oldie even told me about them once. Claimed that he still had some in a wooden box somewhere, but that they wouldn’t fit into the dial on his phonograph.

Last I heard, he tried to sell them to a museum and was never seen again. I like to think he made millions and moved to some island somewhere, but the museum gremlins probably just put him in a glass case. Seriously, those guys make librarians look positively normal by comparison.

But, I digress. The secret to sneaking your music into a library is to go for a good portable phonograph. The kind that breaks apart like a sniper rifle. Once you’ve got one of these, then take your book to the corner nearest the boiler. Every library has one.

Apparently some of the trendier ones use the old books as fuel, something to do with ideological differences apparently. Anyway, a good boiler is a noisy, clanking thing that instils a deep atavistic fear in even the greenest of newbie librarians.

If you get there early enough, then you can stake out a corner, assemble your phonograph, lean into the trumpet and ride the paper highway at one hundred miles an hour. It’s like nothing else. Not only do you reach the point where you stop seeing words and just start thinking in pictures instead twice as quickly but, when you’ve gotta stop and wind-up the clockwork again, there’s usually someone interesting there too.

Someone who is reading a paperback with good cover art. Someone who spends more time on the page than in the world. Someone whose brain is like the computers that the ancients kept writing about all the time. If you’re lucky, you can pick up a few interesting Dewey Decimal numbers from them that you can pencil down and use to get into some of the better reading nooks in town.

Of course, you’ll sometimes get a hipster dweeb who will quote an ISBN number from memory, like they’ve spent so much time reading about life before the Flare that they still believe that things like databases actually exist.

But, most of the time, you’ll find interesting people near the boiler. The best one was this lady with woad blue hair who told me about this book called “Neuromancer”. I’ve never been able to find it anywhere, so I had to take her word for it.

Apparently, this was a book written before the Flare about people who use silicon machines to go into something like a reading trance. They called it “virtual reality” or something like that. Some things, I guess, are timeless.

Today’s Art (30th April 2014)

Well, I’m still making new watercolour versions of some of my best old drawings. I’m still not entirely certain how long I’ll be doing this for, but hopefully I’ll come up with some completely new ideas soon.

Like with the past few repaintings, I’ll include both the old and the new versions of this picture for comparison.

As usual, both versions of this picture are released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"Breach (II)" By C. A. Brown

“Breach (II)” By C. A. Brown

Breach (II)” is a new version of one of my favourite steampunk drawings from 2012. Although I prefer this new version to the old one – the actual painting itself looks better than this digital version (even after a fair amount of editing).

"Breach" By C. A. Brown [19th November 2012]

“Breach” By C. A. Brown [19th November 2012]

Well, I drew “Breach” on one of my most creative days in 2012 and I’m still quite proud of it. Anyway, here’s the original description of it I wrote in 2012 on DeviantART (complete with the original spelling mistake too):

“I’m really proud of this drawing too (I don’t know, I seem to be in an amazingly creative mood tonight) 🙂 But, yeah, I was in kind of a Steampunk mood a while earler and I decided to draw this – originally, it was going to be brighter and more fantastical, but as soon as the idea of pirates in airships appeared in my mind, I knew that I had to draw this instead.”

How To Draw A Corset

Well, for today’s instalment of my “How To Draw” series, I thought that I’d show you how to draw a corset. They’re fairly easy to draw and are perfect for gothic, steampunk and vampire-related art.

Although, if you are drawing historical art, I should point out that corsets were not traditionally visible in historical outfits (whislt they’re a current part of gothic fashion, they were traditionally considered to be a form of underwear).

This guide will show you how to draw both overbust and underbust corsets.

This image is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

This image is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.