The Perils of Irene

I’ve just ordered the third book in the Invisible Library series by Genevieve Cogman, so I may as well admit I’ve enjoyed the first two. The action is fast-paced, and the fantasy world premise is both fresh and quirky.

The premise owes a bit, perhaps, to Jorge Luis Borges. There’s a library, you see. It doesn’t contain, we can be certain, every possible book, but it’s unimaginably vast. Also, it’s not in any particular universe, but rather in a sort of suspended state behind or between thousands of alternate universes.

The job of the librarians is to venture out into one alternate world or another and bring back extremely rare books to add to the collection. This might seem a dry quest, but it’s never as simple as you’d think. Irene Winters is a junior librarian with a talent for getting herself into deadly danger. She has some magical power over inanimate objects, but her powers are of little use against the Fae, an arrogant race who thrive on chaos and drama.

Irene’s handsome young assistant, Kai, is … well, that would be a spoiler. He’s not Fae, but he’s not human either, I’ll say no more than that. In pursuit of a strange version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales they venture into a world that’s mostly Victorian steampunk, complete with dirigibles, werewolves, and cyborg alligators. Their only ally in the fight against the Fae is one Peregrine Vale, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Sherlock Holmes. Irene’s snotty librarian rival, Bradamant, has her own agenda, and her loyalties are very questionable.

I’m trying to remember if it was Dashiell Hammett whose advice to writers was, “If you’re not sure what happens next, have a man come into the room with a gun.” Cogman seems to have taken that maxim to heart. You can rely on things going disastrously wrong before Irene, Kai, and Vale stumble through, bruised and bleeding, to the happy ending.

Along they way, though, Irene thinks like a librarian, or at least like a storyteller. Again and again the action freezes while she thinks through the possible ramifications of what the bad guy has just said. Here’s a fine example, from the middle of The Masked City. A bad guy has just suggested that he’s about to turn her over to an even worse bad guy. This is in the course of a longish conversation in which the bad guy has the drop on Irene and, like every classic villain from every James Bond novel, is explaining what he has been doing and is about to do:

The spike of fear nearly turned Irene’s stomach. Her very worst nightmare was coming true … Wait. This is too obvious. Cold common sense dragged her back from panic to critical analysis. He’s deliberately waving this [offer] at me to persuade me to choose a lesser evil. If he wants me in his service this badly, then why?

It’s almost as if Irene knows she’s a character in a book, but I don’t think that’s what Cogman is up to. A better interpretation is that Cogman wants to sustain the storytelling angle of the fantasy premise, even when the action is anything but academic — when Irene is stabbing someone or getting her own hands sliced open. The intellectual deviousness of the plotting is an effective counterbalance to the guns, knives, things exploding, and martial arts displays that leave the werewolves on the floor howling in pain.

If Netflix or HBO hasn’t licensed these books for an original series, it’s only a matter of time. The stories are not deep, but they’re satisfying.

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