The Burning Page: this time, Alberich means business

Book cover: The Burning Page - Genevieve Cogman (mostly text treatment, with a silhouette of a man and a woman in period dress)Irene is still working off her superiors’ displeasure for abandoning her assigned world to rescue Kai. The dragons are irritated that she won’t accept their protection to stop it happening again. And the Fae probably want to kill her. But soon they’ll all have bigger things to worry about: Alberich is back – and this time he has his eyes set on the Library itself…

I find the books of the Invisible Library a pleasant distraction, and The Burning Page is another reliable page-turner. We find Irene and Kai running away from armed guards on a world so orderly even the Language can only divert attention for a very limited space of time. Before you can sneeze, their path home has exploded in their face and they’re trapped in a burning building, inspiring them to desperate measures.

I think The Burning Page is the first time we’ve seen Irene in full book thief Librarian mode since the opening of The Invisible Library. It’s a promising beginning, even if it’s a terrible sign for Irene herself: she’s back to being sent on retrieval assignments. Maybe if she can bring enough books home, her career will get back on track, rather than being Librarian-in-Residence of her chaotic Victorian London alternate. Maybe.

First, however, she has to survive the current fiasco. As if exploding doorways weren’t enough, when Irene gets back to London, glamorous Fae fatale Zayanna is waiting for her to beg her for help – and to warn her that someone wants her dead. It sounds like Fae melodramatics and manipulation until Irene gets home to a flat full of venomous spiders…

Getting killed was incredibly easy. Anyone could do it.

The Burning Page is all conspiracy theories and heists as Irene struggles with the paranoia that comes from knowing the most powerful Librarian of your era is out to get you, whilst also knowing that doesn’t put him first in the queue. The narrative plays carefully with what she (and we) know, so works well for a diverting game of ‘pick the villain(s)’ and regular cries of “Irene NO”.

I like how Irene’s confidence has grown over this series. She’s a dangerous woman in her own right, and she has successfully survived enough peril that she finally appreciates it. A sequence involving a kidnapping by some werewolves was a delight for how fiercely and imaginatively she stood up for herself. If The Masked City cast her as the adventuress who must rescue the capture prince, The Burning Page underlines that this lady isn’t one who’ll be needing rescuing herself.

In spite of this, Genevieve Cogman successfully evokes a sense of risk and danger. Irene is highly capable, not invulnerable. Nonetheless, the repeated theme of Kai worrying about her, trying to look after her, and chiding her when she didn’t let him grew quite thin quite fast. After all, Kai was the one who was recently kidnapped (and is still slightly traumatised by his experiences). At the risk of SPOILERS (mouse over to read), I was awfully glad that he did not ultimately rescue Irene at the terrifying climax (yes, he plays a part, but she must deal with Alberich herself).

Irene’s good friend Sherlock Vale is also a source of headaches. Like Kai, he is struggling with his memories of high-chaos Venice, unable to sleep and taking far too much morphine. Unlike Kai, Vale is contaminated by chaos – and unlike Irene herself, he is unlikely to survive having it driven out by the Language. This puts Irene in a difficult position, caught between care for a friend and need for his intellectual insights, and with all her options likely to damage one or both. I appreciated that this quickly became a subplot about choice and nature, with Irene reluctant to make convenient decisions on Vale’s behalf. I was less engaged by the romantic subplot, as Vale now appears to be firmly cast as love interest (something I had entirely wiped out of my memory from previous volumes).

However, it’s a small quibble in a book given mostly to over-the-top setpieces, derring do and outrageous threat levels. Alberich is back in bombastic form (honestly, his main flaw is his towering arrogance) and dropping enough intriguing comments in the final act that I suspect that the matter of Irene’s parentage is about to become a major plot point. I think it’s my own flaw that I don’t find him very scary, rather than moustache-twirling and faintly absurd. However, he is stupidly powerful, and the finale had me on the edge of my seat.

Overall, this is an entertaining popcorn read in a breezy series about adventuring librarians – honestly, what more do you need?