The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins is one of the biggest surprises of the year for me so far. A contemporary fantasy novel with strong horror elements, it sets up a wholly original fictional universe, complete with mythology going back tens of thousands of years. It’s easily one of the best novels I’ve read all year, and one I’m 100% sure I’ll reread at least once.
Carolyn is one of twelve children who were, at one point, regular small-town American kids, until Father took them in and made them his Pelapi, a word that means something like “pupil” and “librarian” combined. Father is a millennia-old deity who has collected the sum total of his knowledge in a huge Borgesian library, divided into twelve “catalogs” that each cover a subject like the gift of languages, war, time travel and so on. The children are each assigned a catalog and so, studying the arcane skills of Father, become incredibly powerful beings themselves. One can revive the dead, another can travel into the past and the future, and yet another becomes a practically invincible warrior.
This knowledge comes with a price though: Father is a cruel master who doesn’t hesitate to apply the harshest of punishments to his pupils. Since one catalog covers reviving the dead and healing almost any wound, this can get spectacularly gory and more than a little disturbing.
The Library at Mount Char begins in the present day. The Pelapi have grown up, but are in some ways still children, completely estranged from the rest of the world. The only one who can more or less interact with regular people is Carolyn, who was assigned the catalog of languages by Father, meaning she at least still speaks some English and can more or less pass for normal — with a strong emphasis on “more or less.”
And so, when Father suddenly disappears and the Library becomes inaccessible, Carolyn is the one who ventures out into the world to figure out what is going on. This is the start of an incredibly strange story, at times dark beyond belief, at others laugh-out-loud funny, but always captivating and surprising.
It is also beautifully written, especially for a debut novel. Scott Hawkins perfectly captures the strangeness of his characters and world. His dialogues are perfectly paced, something I always admire and respect. While he keeps the story moving along quickly most of the time, there are also a few moments of introspection that demonstrate his considerable writing chops:
She was crying. Steve didn’t stop her, didn’t try to say anything. There was nothing to say.
As the days and weeks and seasons wore on he found himself repeating this nothing, not wanting to. Gradually he came to understand this particular nothing was all that he could really say now. He chanted it to himself in cell blocks and dingy apartments, recited it like a litany, ripped himself to rags against the sharp and ugly poetry of it. It echoed down the grimy hallways and squandered moments of his life, the answer to every question, the lyric of all songs.
There is very little to criticize in The Library at Mount Char. It’s a small thing, but I wish Hawkins had picked some more distinctive names for the Pelapi, because it can be tricky to keep them apart early on in the novel: I found myself flipping back pages a few times to check which catalog Janet or Philip or David or Michael or Lee or Carolyn had. There are a few sections here and there, especially in the middle of the novel, that maybe could have been tightened up a bit.
But these are very small issues that pale compared to the sheer originality of this novel. Scott Hawkins is a writer to watch, and The Library at Mount Char is an extraordinary achievement. You should read it.
Further reading: here’s a great interview with Scott Hawkins, over at my old haunt Fantasy Literature!
I just came across your recommendation on the Tor best books of 2015 page. I loved this book, loved First Fifteen Lives and love Jo Walton. Glad to find someone whose reviews I know will probably align with my own.