Book Review: The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins was one of my favourite reads in 2017. It’s evocative, brutal urban fantasy; twisted and mythic.

A capsule summary of the plot: an immortal, “Father”,  kidnapped twelve children in the 1970s after a disaster and has trained them to be apprentice immortals with great powers after a harrowing, abusive upbringing. The children are ‘librarians’, each controlling a ‘catalog(ue)’ of otherworldly power. For example, the boy with the catalog of war is trained to survive, kill and murder entire armies. Our protagonist, Carolyn, has the catalogue of languages and can speak all languages, including mystical and forgotten languages.  What’s forbidden is learning lore outside one’s catalogue and Father violently enforces this rule.  One day, Father goes missing and a power vacuum is created amongst the librarians as they struggle to figure what has happened to him.

Spoilery bits; this a revenge story. It’s not told straightforwardly. I knew Carolyn, the protagonist, was plotting vengeance against Father from the beginning, but she never thinks about her plan directly.  Even when she reveals her plan, it’s overly complex and brutal. Stretches of the story are told from normal chumps who are obliquely dragged into Carolyn’s plot and don’t have all the pieces of the plan.  The writing is evocative, and while the story jumps characters and moves back and forth in time, I didn’t get lost.

As a child, I wanted some otherworldly wizardly person to take me to their special world and teach me magic, but The Library at Mount Char mercilessly deconstructs this fantasy. Carolyn and her fellow librarians gain this power, but in learning their catalogues, they’ve lost their memories of their childhood, the ability to relate to normal people and to interact with the modern world. It’s Carolyn’s struggle with her power and humanity that forms the crux of the book. It’s a dark story, but worth reading.

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