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We’re smack in the middle of awards season, not to be confused with “best of the year” season (The Best Comics! The Best Collections and Anthologies! Our Favorite Reads!) These things are fun to read (and fun to write), but I think they sometimes conceal the real reasons we love books under a pile of (admittedly weel-earned) superlatives. Consider, for example, The Most Fun New Series of 2016. You’d pick that up in a minute, right? For me, Genevieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library began just such a series. With the publication of the third installment, The Burning Page, this month, she’s on track to clinch Most Fun Continuing Series in 2017.
Librarian Irene works for, ahem, the Library, more than just a collection of books; it’s an inter-dimensional way station connecting a myriad of alternate worlds. Librarians are tasked with retrieving unique or rare books from these worlds—say, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, penned by Austen herself, that only exists on one world. These rarities bind these worlds together. The written word is the glue of universe. (I know! Isn’t that the greatest set up?) And far from a too-earnest glorification of the written word, The Invisible Library books remember that reading can also be more fun than just about anything else. As Irene herself rues from time to time, her life is filled with more giant spiders, werewolf attacks, flying sleighs, and dragon sidekicks than they warn you about in your MLIS program.
In the first two books, Irene was saddled with a mysterious new assistant, Kai, and sent out into a high-chaos world, where she encountered two important people. One of them is consulting detective Peregrine Vale, who, while not a librarian, ends up being both an indispensable resource and friend. (Irene’s name, which she chose herself, is a nod to Sherlock Holmes, so she’s also got some feelings about Vale.) Irene also encounters the Library’s arch-villain, Alberich, a man thousands of years old, with access to grotesque occult powers. These opening volumes lay the groundwork for the coming confrontation with Alberich, and we finally get it in The Burning Page. To extend the Holmes metaphor, he’s the series’ Moriarty: in the background, pulling strings, as patient as a spider in his intricate web. He’s working a long con, one Irene and her friends struggle to see the full shape of.
With introductions out of the way, this volume hits the ground running. Irene learns that Vale was sickened during his adventure in The Masked City (a circumstance at least partially her fault), and she’s desperate to help him, but before she can, Alberich delivers his final ultimatum: transfer power to me, or I will destroy the Library. The place erupts into action, though, like so many of the Library’s actions, both the rationale and utility of the things they’re doing seem questionable. Irene is confronted with a dilemma: act on her loyalty to Vale, or defend the Library. She’s no time to wring her hands over the decision, though—Alberich makes sure of that.
Every heroine needs a villain to sharpen herself against, so I don’t really mind when the bad guys have stock reasons for their antagonism. (“Behold the power of my daddy issues!”) But antagonists are so much more fun when you agree with them on some level. The terrible things Alberich does are not even a little justifiable, but he’s absolutely not wrong that Library leadership is at best withholding, and at worst, corrupt. Irene often parrots Library dogma (she was raised there, after all), and often I think, really? That sounds…selfish and dodgy? There’s something gratifying, as a reader, to lean into the antagonist’s final monologue, half on the hook, and then come back to yourself and jerk away.
While I don’t think Irene’s adventures with the Library are over—Moriarty didn’t die at Reichenbach Falls, and I don’t think we’ve seen the end of Alberich—the ending of The Burning Page is so satisfying. Cogman pulls together disparate threads wound through the whole series—even events that seemed inconsequential—and tied them off with a flourish. Oh, I have questions—about Irene’s true parentage, for a start—and ‘ve no doubt there’ll be many more adventures in this fantastic place. I’ll be there with my Library card in hand.