April 9, 2017
Imagine a book in which roughly three-fourths of every page feels absolutely normal. Nuclear families in suburbia bake cookies and have dogs. An ex-military guy is strong and can intimidate people into helping him investigate a crime. A loser feels guilty about something from his past, but he’s trying to get his life together. Pretty straightforward, right? That’s what 75% of The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins, is like.
Okay, but that last one-fourth. I’m not going to give you examples of that part because, well, you really just have to see for yourself. That one-fourth makes this book one of the most original books I’ve ever read—maybe in some ways the most original. That part contains stuff that’s just a slight distortion of reality, stuff that’s unexpected here but you’ve seen it before, stuff that’s so cleverly worked into the story that you want to stop reading to appreciate it but at the same time keep reading at breakneck speed to see exactly how it could possibly connect, and stuff that you can’t possibly believe anyone thought up. Not all of it works, but most of it does, and the combo makes for a truly unique story.
Here’s my hypothesis: Scott Hawkins decided to write with absolutely no tethers to reality as we know it. He did, and his wife told him to try again with a tether or two. So he wrote that book, and then his friends told him it was just a wee bit too bizarre for their tastes. So he wrote a slightly less bizarre book, and then his agent told him to ground it more in a familiar world with which the average reader could identify. So he wrote that book, and after an influx of a bit more normalcy it got published.
If you’ve read any of my other book reviews, you know I’m a character-driven reader. If a story has great characters, I’ll eat it up. If not, I may or may not even finish it. The characters in this book are solid, and they get better as the book goes on, but in this case I kept reading because of the originality, the unexpectedness, the thatssocoolness. You see how I made up a word, there? I did that on purpose just to be like another of my favorite authors, Cory Doctorow, who, in his back-cover blurb, describes The Library at Mount Char as “A sprawling, epic contemporary fantasy about cruelty and the end of the world, compulsively readable, with the deep, resonant magic of a world where reality is up for grabs. Unputdownable.” And you should trust Cory Doctorow in this because he wrote a book whose main character’s family consists of a mountain, a washing machine, and two nesting dolls (Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town).
I’m a little worried that The Library at Mount Char is having trouble finding its audience. I picked it up on a remainder rack, and for some reason Amazon has it priced down from $16 to $6.99. It deserves way more than discount/remainder status, but it’s just … so … different. Let’s see if I can get you to go out and buy it with an irresistible “mash-up” description: It’s like if Twin Peaks and The Magicians had a love child, and Orphan Black and Breaking Bad had a love child, and those two got together and had a kid who then mated with the offspring of the love children of Rudyard Kipling, Douglas Adams, J.K. Rowling, and Umberto Eco, in whatever arrangement makes the most sense, ultimately producing this book.
So, you know, enjoy the ride!