The Library at Mount Char, a fantasy debut by Scott Hawkins, kind of floored me.
I don’t say that often. I also don’t often worry about how to talk about a book without giving away what makes it truly special. I have both problems here. First, it wormed into the dark, secret places in my head in just the right way. Second, it is a novel of interlocking mysteries (some of which are actually spoiled in the jacket copy), and what’s so unique is that it never fully gives away what it is, and what it’s getting at, until the very last moments. Its machinations swirl around a central event, causing it to be infuriating and liberating in equal measure.
The story begins with Carolyn and her “family,” taken as children by an enigmatic, powerful man they know only as “Father” to serve as caretakers of the near-infinite building he calls the Library. Each child is given a catalog to study, which grants them control over a specific aspect of the universe— one studies “Death and Horror,” another all things relating to “The Future.” Carolyn’s own catalog appears, at first, to be “Languages.” Unfortunately for the children, Father has vanished, leaving the vast library, and all the secrets of the universe, completely unguarded.
Worse still for our (nominal) heroes, a barrier has arisen around the Library that rips apart from the inside any who attempt to pass through it, and terrifying abominations (including an angry Cthulhu-type that turns people into Slenderman) are taking advantage of Father’s absence to make their own obtuse plays for control of the world. It falls to Carolyn and her siblings (as well as other humans caught up in the mayhem) to unravel the mystery of their patriarch’s disappearance, regain access to the Library, and set the world to rights.
Hawkins’ use of language is tricksy and impressive, granting the narrative an abstract slipperiness: the characters have built a kind of mythology into the concepts and people around them; the day they were all forced to become Librarians is known as “Adoption Day,” and Father’s enemies are given names like “The Forest God,” and “Barry O’Shea.” The world develops its own sort of tribal mythology, the sense of a centralized pantheon duking it out in an obscure conflict with other, older gods for control of the universe. His words actually seem to have weight. The way the characters talk, the way they use the words available to them, it all combines to create something more.
This is a world of vivid characters, from a thief trying (and failing hard) to be a good Buddhist, to a tiger who views Father with something approaching religious zealotry, to the Librarians themselves, who have become such embodiments of their work that the tutu-clad child in charge of “War and Violence” is covered in the blood of his victims. Each one has their own odd mannerisms and sense of style, brought to life in vivid detail.
But the thing that absolutely broke me was the book’s humanity. At its heart, it’s telling a very different story than the very weird one on the surface. And the story it does tell is only hinted at until the very end. At its blackest little heart, this is a book about trauma, and a Very Bad Thing can rob someone of their very humanity. It’s the story of very damaged people who must learn to put themselves back together again—sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. It’s the story of how they were damaged, how they damaged others, and how, eventually, we must overcome in order to survive. If that isn’t a beautiful message to sneak into a book full of gods and monsters both human and otherwise, I have no idea what is.