Of all the books I've read in 2016, 'The Invisible Library' (click here for review ) is surely the one that I most loved and hated all at once. It's based on such a fantastic idea that it's almost a dream, but the downside is that it plays much better as a dream because dreams don't need to be based on solid logic. I was keen to explore its sequel, in a series which I believe will now number at least five, to see how well the concept could stand up as that series progresses and the ideas build.
I found that I had many of the same concerns this time out and a few other high level problems leapt out to battle my enjoyment, but I prefer this one to its predecessor because it goes beyond Library business into a real ripping yarn, an adventure to save a friend. As much as I love the idea of the Library, existing outside of space and time, and that of its dedicated Librarians who wander the myriad parallel universes to retrieve unique volumes of interest, I still fail to understand how they can be remotely viable. That's a tough place to throw me: I want to be a Librarian, goshdarnit, but I just don't buy into the concept.
My thoughts at the end of the previous book as to who would return proved correct. Irene remains as a Librarian, of course, but she's been stationed permanently on alternate N-395 now, with Kai continuing on as her assistant and the very sharp Peregrine Vale playing along too, now that he's in on their secret. I was in two minds about this. One was happy to stay in familiar territory and a steampunk alternate London is hardly a bad place to be. The other was a little frustrated at how convenient this particular steampunk alternate London happens to be.
One perennial discussion amongst literary steampunks revolves around whether it's appropriate for an author (or anyone else) to sanitise the Victorian era. Sure, it included incredible invention, exploration and genius, but it was just as full of sexism, racism and income inequality, which meant many dark sides that are too often ignored by the romantics: child labour, extreme poverty and brutal suppression. I couldn't help but keep this in mind as I read about our capable heroine enjoying the showers and good sanitation of Victorian London N-395 and thanking her stars that she wasn't stuck in a more realistic place.
However, we don't stay there very long, because Kai is kidnapped by a couple of power-hungry Fae, Lord and Lady Guantes, who spirit him off to a different alternate, one with high chaos.
Cogman's universe is built of parallel worlds which span a spectrum of high science to high chaos, where chaos equals magic and supernatural weirdness. The Fae thrive in high chaos but can't exist without at last some of it around them, while dragons, Kai's species, are the precise opposite. N-395 is low chaos, so we get Fae and vampires but the rules of physics apply. Moving Kai up that spectrum to a high chaos alternate is not just physically dangerous for him, but inherently a difficult place for other dragons to steal him back from, so limiting the logical result of his kidnapping, which would be outright war. After all, it's rather difficult to fight an opponent in a location that you can't even visit.
Of course, that task then falls to Irene, even though she's forbidden to take it on. She goes ahead anyway, with what little support she has coming from an unlikely source: Lord Silver, her adversary in the first book, a Fae ambassador who happens to have a little more negative history with the Guantes than he does with Irene, Kai and the Library. So, the enemy of her enemy becomes her friend, though, with a friend like Silver, she needs to keep checking her pockets and hiding her back.
The biggest success with 'The Masked City' is the enticing nature of high chaos worlds. In such places, the laws of physics still apply, for the most part, but the people are guided just as much by the laws of story. A powerful Fae is egotistical for good reason, because his story dominates those around him and it warps theirs into supporting his. However, everyone has a story and those stories intersect constantly. To stay alive, sane and free in a high chaos world, Irene has to figure out how all this works and then use it to further her ends. We learn as she learns and that journey is a fascinating one indeed. After all, is Irene the lead in her own story or a supporting player in that of Lord Guantes? All we know for sure is that Kai is the McGuffin.
I'm sure the more eagle-eyed of you will see the problem here. N-395, Irene's regular world, is not high chaos but it does have a chaos infestation, so it's grounded for the most part but science is still battling story for supremacy. This allows for literary devices like the power of convenience, which would be considered cheap in any other novel, driving the plot forward in this one. In other words, the things that we might usually consider negatives have to be reevaluated in the context in which Cogman puts them. Plot conveniences aren't merely things to allow here, they're viable tools for characters to use for their own ends. It's an enticing concept and I do plan on re-reading the entire trilogy in one go to see how it will play with that front and centre.
Another success is the use of Venice as our background on this high chaos world, one in which Giovanni Piranesi's fantastic prisons are not just imaginative prints but realities. I applaud Cogman for hauling in an artist like him to construct a serious plot point, rather than focusing on names more of us are likely to recognise. Irene has to win a rare Bram Stoker edition in auction early in the book and most readers will know his name, but adding Piranesi, who is far more obscure, prompts us to question everyone of importance in the book, even if most are completely fictional.
As successful as many components of this book are, there are still weaker aspects. The one that annoyed me the most was the involvement of Kai's family, given that librarians are supposed to leave that behind them when they join. Perhaps it's allowed in his case, because he's not a full librarian yet, but it still seems a little odd nonetheless. I was less concerned with downsides this time out, though, as I was last time. As a make or break series book, it therefore succeeds.
Book three in the series is out and I'll hopefully get to read it soon. It's called 'The Burning Page' and it's apparently set in St. Petersburg, which ought to be a suitably intriguing location for librarian spies. ~~ Hal C F Astell