Titles with ‘library’ and ‘bookstore’ are irresistible to readers. Add in a cover that looks like faded and cracked leather with gilt lettering and it is like leaving a plate of freshly baked cookies in a work breakroom. Sure, you may have started a January diet, but really, just one won’t ruin anything, right? I’m often adverse to YA, but a friend’s enthusiastic review (thanks, Mikhail!) had me reconsidering. Plus, there’s that cover. I gave it a shot and am pleased with how it went. Like a Pixar comic, there may be quite a bit that is young/new adult, but it is done well enough to be enjoyed by all ages, even precocious younger ones (unlike my recent read of Wake of Vultures).
Irene is a resident of the Library, capital intended, a sort of reverse-Plutonian ideal library in which all books reside. Only they don’t yet, and so junior librarians like Irene are assigned to retrieve unique books from worlds connected to the Library. Books apparently exist across multiple worlds, so I haven’t quite worked out the logistics on that one, but why let petty multiple-world details bother me? After an adventurous opening chapter in which Irene completes a retreval, she heads back to the Library hoping for time to work on her own projects. Alas; her supervisor has other ideas and sends her with a new apprentice, Kai, Irene to a world that has both technical and magical phenomena to retrieve a particular edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Worlds with high levels of ‘magic’ are subject to be thrown out of balance by the forces of Chaos, unless the dragonic race intervenes to help restore order to the magical forces. Before long, Irene and Kai find the situation is (of course) more than they expected and will require some compromise.
Because of the unique confluence of tech and magic, the world Irene and Kai enter feels like a fairly standard Victorian steam-punk setting. Thankfully, Cogman concentrates more on the fun/innovative parts of the world, like robotic centipedes, zeppelins and werewolves, rather than spending endless time describing corsets, top hats, and how gas lamps work.
I often steer clear of the steampunk genre because it seems like authors enjoy the late-Victorian setting as much as the story, and I’ll be honest–I haven’t cared for parasols since I was ten, and the sexism inherent in the era inevitably causes me cognitive dissonance. But the parallel-worlds theory allows Cogman to bypass such unpleasantness:
“Irene agreed. ‘What’s the gender situation here?’
‘Women are generally accepted in most trades, except as serving soldiers in the army. They often end up in engineering divisions there. Nothing unusual about a female reporter, though they often end up with the high-society and scandal pages.”
On a related note, there’s some nice humor mixed in:
“‘I’ll be counter-fashionable. Let’s just be grateful that corsets aren’t required wear any longer.’
‘Why should I be grateful?’ Kai asked, raising an eyebrow.
‘Because you don’t have to deal with me while I’m wearing one,’ Irene said flatly.”
I thought characterization was decent. Irene is conscientious of her role as Kai’s preceptor, tending to think about what she is role-modeling and his possible perspective as student. She has the final say in their mission, and if she occasionally makes too many mental notes to ‘apologize to Kai later,’ at least we have a nice reversal of the ‘older man, younger female wizard/gifted/etc’ shtick that I’ve seen so many times. There are a few times when Irene seemed almost unacceptably naive, missing at least one very obvious situation, but overall I feel okay with how the characterization works. It isn’t inconsistent with someone who would have had the in/out world experiences she has had. I like her mostly confident, common-sense attitude.
I enjoyed the way the situation became more complicated with a couple of surprises (rather than the typical ‘stay undercover’ premise), as well as allowing for a variety of characters to have both antagonistic and helpful actions. I appreciate that kind of complexity. There are a couple of spots where I had to pause and re-read, because something just seemed awkward in phrasing or action, but that seemed in line with a first book. There’s also a bit of Kitchen-Sink-Syndrome going on here, which some may find distracting. It means there’s a lot of interesting stuff that isn’t really explained or necessarily even needed.
Overall, it was a cute story with significant–but again, obvious–potential for a long-term conflict arc. I’ll move on to the next, especially as it promises to take place in a difference world than this one.
stars books on the technical level, four on the story-telling level.