Friday 25 December 2020

The Invisible Library series, by Genevieve Cogman


This review gives an overview of The Invisible Library series to date, incorporating the first volume (previously reviewed on 26 July) which has the same title. First, the background to the series:

The heroine is Irene Winters, a professional librarian but not in any ordinary library. She is an investigator for the Invisible Library, a mysterious and secret multiverse-spanning organisation which aims to rescue the rarest of fiction, and in so doing helps to preserve the stability of the worlds. The Library exists somewhere in between the alternative worlds, with access to all of them. Some of these versions of Earth are strictly technological, some entirely magical, but most have elements of both. They also vary in their position along a scale with chaos at one end, and order at the other. 

As well as humanity (which includes the Librarians, although they have some unique abilities connected to their use of Language, a kind of magic peculiar to them) there is a menagerie of magical creatures including vampires and werewolves, of which the most significant are the Fae and the Dragons. The Fae appear to be human but have a powerful persuasive ability and thrive in the chaos worlds. The Dragons can take human form or that of giant flying lizards and are basically on the side of order, but have little patience with humanity and are best avoided. Then there is, out there somewhere, the evil Alberich, a renegade librarian.

In The Invisible Library, we first see the resourceful Irene retrieving a very rare and ancient book from a magically-protected library, which she survives only because of her use of the Language. For her next task she is instructed to take with her Kai, a student Librarian. Also joining the team is Peregrine Vale, a private investigator who is an exact incarnation of Sherlock Holmes – Irene's favourite fictional character. Finding the book she is looking for is complicated by the intense interest in it from several important people – and other beings – and Irene is tested to her limits in her attempt to complete her mission.

The Masked City begins with a disconcerting incident in which Kai, Irene's student of many powers, is kidnapped and taken to another world, specifically to a bizarre Venice where chaos dominates. The threat of a war between the Fae and the Dragons is building rapidly, and Irene is the only person who might stand a chance of stopping it. She is opposed by Lord Guantes, one of the most dangerous Fae who is determined to start a war which would be catastrophic for the hapless human inhabitants of the multiverse. To prevent this, Irene has to go to Venice in the hope of rescuing Kai.

In The Burning Page, a different threat has emerged: the Gates used by the Librarians to travel between worlds of the multiverse are beginning to fail. This is soon linked to the return of Alberich, the renegade librarian who aims to destroy the Library altogether. Once again Irene, Kai and Peregrine Vale become involved in a complex plot to thwart the villain's plans and save the Library.

The Lost Plot is mostly set in a 1930s-style New York City, with gangs and speakeasies, which forms the backdrop to a ferocious battle between rival dragons. Irene of course gets involved, but finds that there is a high price to be paid for her interference. 

The Mortal Word is set in another of the endless variations of Earth, this time in a Paris which seems to be late Victorian (horse-drawn carriages mixing with motor vehicles). This setting is the venue of a peace conference between the Dragons and the Fae, moderated by the Librarians. It is not going well, however, so Irene is despatched to the scene along with detective Vale and of course Kai, to investigate a murder and try to avert an all-out war.

The Secret Chapter provides yet another new environment for Irene, when she is sent to meet a powerful Fae collector on his private Carribbean island in order to negotiate the acquisition of a book which is very important to the stability of one of the worlds. However, to obtain this she has to join a team of criminals in stealing for the collector a huge painting in a Vienna art gallery, which turns out to have a particular significance for the Dragons. As usual, events develop at such a speed that Irene needs all of her wits about her.

The Dark Archive sees Irene and her friends under threat from the start, fending off various attempts at kidnapping and assassination. Furthermore, her work is complicated by the arrival of her new student trainee Catherine, an undisciplined young Fae who wants to become the first Fae Librarian. There are shocks for Irene as she discovers the identity of her enemies, who are determined to destroy the Dragon/Fae peace treaty - and an even greater shock concerning her own history. 

These books are very well-written, with a constant thread of humour giving them something of the flavour of Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog. Irene is a very likeable character and the stories are immensely enjoyable. This series is among the high spots of my fantasy reading in recent years, and is highly recommended. Fortunately, the conclusion of The Dark Archive promises more books to come.

Thursday 3 December 2020

Odds and ends

 A couple of films and a pair of novels this time:

Film: Jumanji - The Next Level (2019)

I finished my review of the previous film (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) with this: 

The film is lively and amusing, with a healthy dose of moralising concerning the importance of developing trust and cooperation. This sequel manages the rare achievement of being a considerably better film than the original. I see that a third film in the series is due at the end of this year, and I'll be looking out for it.

Sadly, The Next Level (or Jumanji 3) was a considerable disappointment. It is basically just a re-run of WttJ with a few changes to the scenery, and without the fresh ideas or much of the humour. The one plot innovation – having the characters switch avatars between them – did not work at all for me, as I lost track of who was meant to be whom, and thereby literally lost the plot.  To be fair, if WttJ had not been so good I might have been more tolerant of the flaws, but as it is, I am now not looking forward to the reported Jumanji 4; it would take rave reviews before I could be persuaded to watch it.


Film: Tomb Raider (2018)

This is the one with Alicia Vikander in the title role, as opposed to Angelina Jolie (and should not be confused with the computer games which kicked it all off). I won’t bother to describe the plot here - you can read it on Wiki - but it is basically inspired by the Indiana Jones movies only featuring a resourceful young woman as the explorer Lara Croft. She battles through various dangers before ultimately defeating the bad guys (sorry about the spoiler!). 

I have to say that I was sceptical about the choice of leading lady; Vikander has always struck me as being naturally quiet and enigmatic, coming across as portraying rather passive characters. Lara Croft is the exact opposite of this, being very physical and violent. Despite this, Vikander makes a decent fist of the role (she seems to have spent a lot of time in the gym) and the film is entertaining enough to watch. However, among all of the fantastic adventures she has, there was one totally impossible scene which blew my suspension of disbelief apart; at the end of the film, Croft walks into a pawn shop in present-day London - and walks out with a pair of automatic pistols! As if….


Automated Alice, by Jeff Noon

This is definitely a one-off in modern fantasy, purporting to be the third volume of the adventures of Alice Liddell, the first two being Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll (first published in 1865 and 1872 respectively. I have both stories on my shelves but it is several decades since I read them. However, this “trequel”, published in 1996, can be followed easily enough without reading the others. 

In Automated Alice, our heroine finds herself translated to late-20th century Manchester, only (as usual!) not as we know it. The people are no longer human, but a blend of human and animal characteristics, and their roles in society are largely determined by the animal part of them; policing is carried out by dogmen, while those in charge of managing the local government are the civil serpents. This is just one of the multitudinous puns packed into the story and they sometimes become rather elaborate, for example: 

Captain Ramshackle then knocked over a pile of his miscellaneous objects (one of which was a croquet mallet, which fell ont the shell of the Indian lobster, cracking it open). ‘That looks like a very crushed Asian lobster,’ Alice stated. ‘That lobster is indeed a crustacean!’ the Badgerman replied.

Alice is desperate to return to her own time, but has to collect a dozen lost jigsaw pieces to complete her puzzle, involving many surreal adventures. The author (who includes his own name in some of the jokes) has made a good job of evoking Carroll’s writing style, and I was pleased to see that the book (a Corgi paperback published in 1997) contains many drawings by Harry Trumbore, in the style of the original. Not really my cup of tea, but unusual and intriguing enough to read, and short enough to do so in a couple of sessions.


In Great Waters, by Kit Whitfield

This book, published in 2009, has an unusual setting in an alternative version of Europe.  The technology is at the usual medieval level commonly found in fantasies, but there are two intelligent races: the human landsmen, and the acquatic deepsmen (the mental image I formed combined the top half of a human with the bottom half of a seal). The two races can interbreed, but have a complex relationship.  It is essential for the landsmen to maintain an alliance with the deepsmen who live around the coasts, otherwise shipping could be totally disrupted. This is arranged by relationships between the races within the royal families. But half-breeds born accidentally are rejected by the deepsmen and killed by the landsmen.

In Great Waters follows the lives of Henry, a young half-breed living on land in secret, being used as a pawn in positioning nobles competing for the crown, and Anne, a young princess who has inherited some deepsman traits. This 400-page book is very well written and richly descriptive of the environment and the characters within it. Recommended.