The Mortal Word is the fifth book in Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library series. I’ll cheerfully admit I’m hooked on them. The stories are overwrought and a bit cheesy, but they’re good fun. I waited eagerly for The Mortal Word, and consumed it within two days of its arrival on my doorstep.
Only after I finished, late last night, did I realize Cogman had committed a serious plotting error. It’s serious enough to be worth looking at carefully, both for my own benefit and for the benefit of the half-dozen writers who read this blog. There are no spoilers in what follows, so even if you plan to read the book, you’re on safe ground.
The series is set in a multiverse with all sorts of historical and quasi-historical settings. The multiverse is dominated by dragons and the fae. The dragons can appear human, and usually do. They love order, If they ran the multiverse there would be no art or anything frivolous like that. The fae, on the other hand, love chaos. When they’re around, mere humans are irresistibly drawn into the fae’s fictional narratives of love and danger, usually with bad results.
Mediating between the dragons and the fae are the Librarians. The Librarians hang out in the Invisible Library, a sort of Borgesian space between the worlds where an unknown number of rooms are all stuffed with books. The Librarians venture out from the Library to steal rare books. This is very silly, and I’d guess Cogman probably regrets the narrowness of her original conception, but by golly she’s running with it. And hey — having a librarian as your hero goes David Brin’s The Postman one better. (In that novel, Western civilization is saved, more or less, by a postal carrier.)
The lead character in Cogman’s books is a Librarian named Irene. In The Mortal Word, a peace conference is under way between the dragons and the fae, but someone is trying to sabotage it. Irene and her friends have to ferret out the true culprits if the multiverse is not to collapse into all-out war between the dragons and the fae.
Evidently the prospect of all-out war, in which millions or billions of hapless humans would die, didn’t seem emotionally compelling enough to Cogman. On top of the danger of war, she tells us that the dragon and fae delegations to the peace conference each have a few Librarians staying in their hotel, ostensibly as liaisons with the other Librarians but in fact as hostages. And Irene’s parents are among the hostages.
This fact is brought up half a dozen times, every time Irene rehearses the stakes in the drama (which she does rather too often, just to make sure the reader doesn’t forget). So then we get to the highly dramatic ending of the story, where Irene faces down and dispatches the real villain. In the denouement, the peace treaty is signed! Happy ending!
Except, Irene’s parents never appear on the page. They’re not there at the end to congratulate her, comfort her, or give her a hug. They have never been glimpsed in even one sentence in the entire novel. Their alleged peril was nothing but cheap artifice. The novel would have been just fine without it.
This is a clear violation of Chekhov’s Law. Most writers know this law, but as a reminder, Chekhov said something to the effect that if you show a revolver onstage in Act I, it must be fired before the end of the play. In general terms, the writer must not — must not — trot out an emotionally laden element and then discard it without following through.
It’s still a whiz-bang story, but it would have been better if Cogman’s editor had been wise enough to insist that she drop the cheap and shoddy artifice. Most readers may not notice … but you and I aren’t most readers, are we?