Irene is a Librarian with a capital L – a secret agent who recovers books of note for the Library, hopping from one alternate reality to another. Irene settled down in a Victorian steampunk alternate when her apprentice is kidnapped by local Fae. But Kai is actually a dragon prince. If Irene can’t get him back, this will be the opening move in a multiverse-wide war between order and chaos.
This is me eating humble pie. Big, stodgy, currant-studded humble pie. Why? Because I wasn’t bowled over by The Invisible Library, and actually proclaimed that I’d cheerfully see it if ever appeared on screen, but I wouldn’t read the sequels.
What can I say? Mmmm, pie.
I heard good things, including from Nikki at Breathes Books, who commented that it made her consider re-evaluating the first instalment. Plus I was able to get hold of a free review copy from Netgalley. I was even sort of sneakily looking forward to my first snarky review for Netgalley, just to prove I don’t love everything I get from them (what can I say? I’m very selective about what I request).
…but I can’t, because I was enjoying myself too much from Irene’s early reassurance that ‘You are the person who I trust to watch my back, to fight werewolves for me. To dangle me out of zeppelins‘ (how much do I love this? SO MUCH). Coming hard on the heels of a fight in which she tells him ‘You distract them, I’ll tidy up‘, this nicely defuses the natural power imbalance of Kai being a dragon and sets the tone for their relationship. She’s in charge, thank you, and responsible for his safety.
…which is why she’s allowed a personal crisis when he’s kidnapped. As I’m not big on romance between mentors/apprentices, I was delighted that the kidnapping essentially shelved any exploration of this trope for the duration. Sure, Irene may or may not have (professionally-suppressed) feelings for Kai, but it’s far more terrifying that she must confess to her boss Coppelia – and worse, Kai’s royal uncle – that she’s lost her apprentice. Coppelia might kick her out of the Library. Ao Shun might eat her.
Instead, they allow her to try and clean up the mess. There’s a real question of whether that’s possible, but not whether she’s capable. And the stakes are high: if she fails, Ao Shun will destroy Vale’s reality (currently Irene’s home) and all the entirely innocent human beings who live there. If I didn’t like her already, Irene’s concern for free will and stopping injustice would sway me to her cause.
Apart from the joyful swagger in evidence (“I plan for the worst. That way, at least I’m dressed for the occasion”), the shift from steampunk London to high-tech Marseilles and a broadly Renaissance Fae Venice cemented my new-found love for the series, because each world is distinct and well realised. For the first time, we get to understand how the spectrum from order to chaos works – and what Irene can do as she navigates across it.
Hilariously, one of the things she does (and oh, so well) is keep her reserve, and comment on what’s going on around her like an anthropologist. Or a historian. Or a librarian. Cogman has thought about her world-building, and Irene is a perfect heroine for casually showing off that consideration without interrupting the narrative. She can pass comment on social inequality, associated health impacts and the chances of ubiquitous electronic surveillance in a high-tech future; and be snarky about how trope-tastic Venice really is – and explain why.
The Fae are creatures of chaos, who sink into their archetypes over time. Each responds to certain types of stories and constructs those stories around them – even Irene feels the pressure to respond in certain ways to help the narrative along (although the burn of her Library brand usually brings her to her senses).
Where I thought The Invisible Library‘s London felt constrained by its borrowed elements, The Masked City‘s Venice is a profligate embrace of over-the-top fantasy indulgence. Fae Venice adheres to romantic tropes, not historical facts. And level-headed Irene gets to question plausibility or roll her eyes before the reader can, beat for beat (She brought out a knife from somewhere – Irene decided not to wonder how she’d hidden it in her bikini).
While there was one scene (where Silver tries to dominate Irene) that had me a little uncomfortable – sure, I know that trope too, but I’m still iffy about it – I soon realised I could trust Cogman to subvert it (He drew back from her in a smooth flex of movement that she couldn’t help interpreting as elegantly muscular and seductive, even as the functioning part of her brain labelled it as a flounce). With that clear, I could sit back and enjoy the ride (and, given there’s a Train that can travel between worlds, look forward to the inevitable scene on its roof).
Along the way, there are some lovely touches: everyone’s blasé assumption of Irene’s competence; Vale’s development into a character in his own right (rather than being just a Sherlock knock-off) and the forgotten detail that his Lestrade is Inspector Singh, whose boss is a woman (take that, Victorian London); and one of the many cases currently famous in London is ‘Grant: Covent Garden riot and flood’.
I also enjoyed the debates about the human desire for free will vs a good story (even with the risk of an unhappy ending) and that the many Fae archetypes included a super-organised Lady who ran polls (I bet she could use Excel, too) and a business-like agent who needed receipts for her expenses. Archetypes. They don’t have to be fantasy tropes.
This was a blast from start to finish. I struggled to put it down, I never got bored, and I giggled with a regularity that would have had me pilloried on public transport. This is high grade, thoroughly entertaining fluff, and has made me do a full 180 on the series.
I’m now looking forward to the next one immensely.
I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review.