The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
First Published on June 16, 2015
Paperback First Edition on March 15, 2016
Penguin Random House
Source: theReadingRoom Advanced Readers Program Finished-Copy
“A missing God.
A library with the secrets to the universe.
A woman too busy to notice her heart slipping away.
Populated by an unforgettable cast of characters and propelled by a plot that will shock you again and again, The Library at Mount Char is at once horrifying and hilarious, mind-blowingly alien and heartbreakingly human, sweepingly visionary and nail-bitingly thrilling—and signals the arrival of a major new voice in fantasy.” Source: Penguin Random House.
The Library at Mount Char is an odd little fantasy about a tribe of orphaned children being raised in a “library” by Father, an enigmatic cult-like leader (or so it seems at first).
That’s as much positive as I can muster before the “BUTs…” begin spilling out. This is a very popular, highly-rated book, and you may enjoy it. I personally wavered between acceptance and true detestation. Perhaps I just don’t “get it”; feel free to tell me so in the comments.
Anyways, here’s the deal: first and foremost, Hawkins’s story-telling style is infuriating, and not in a good way (for me). Every single review I’ve encountered mentions how “weird” this book is, and most reviewers seems to agree that nothing at all makes sense for the first 100 pages at least (I for one am not sure I ever got it, but then, it lost my interest long before the end, so perhaps I wasn’t paying attention). Well, I LOVE weird books, the truly bizarre setup, quirky characters, and the like; I thrive in the throes of productive confusion. There’s nothing more I’d rather be when reading a book than completely blown away by the surreal, the absurdly creative, the shattering of the mundane.
The Library did none of that for me. My confusion cannot be productive if I have absolutely no idea what is going on! And, it’s not absurdity when everything can happen, because there are no rules, no internal validity. The Library is such a messy hodge-podge, it doesn’t really inspire new understanding.
Reading an interview with Scott Hawkins, my suspicions were confirmed. He writes:
“Just about every mythology I could think of had already been tapped by someone more famous than me. I didn’t want to appear to be piggybacking… I needed to make up something entirely new. So I tried to capture the spirit of all these myths without really using any of the specifics.” (Source: FantasyLiterature.com interview)
And that, for me, was the root of the problem. Hawkins’ “new” mythology is a random assortment of pretty much all mythologies that have ever been – from Buddhism to Christianity to the Greek Gods to Native American earth-religions to everything in between, with no clear specifics or references to anything we may be familiar with. Add to that he doesn’t explain anything as it’s happening (though some things are revealed in the last 100 of 380 pages)… for me, this led down a path of frustration and annoyance, far removed from semblances of enchantment and wonder, which I had expected to sweep me away in this book.
Next, the world Hawkins creates does not have any boundaries or clear rules. Of course, fantasy bends the rules, but there are still internal patterns that cohere into a systemic whole! In The Library, it seems like anything can happen: there are literally NO limits. This, for me, invalidates the entire purpose of dreaming a new world into being, which is to be able to ask “what if” questions from within another internally consistent, sensical universe.
There are other aspects of the book that did nothing for me: the gratuitous violence, the detestable characters, etc. Also, this book is most definitely not about a “library”; as this enticing setting was the primary reason I picked up The Library, I feel duped (I mean, there is a library, but not our sense of it, and it’s only the setting for the last 100 pages or so).
And: this is most decidedly not science fiction, although some praise it as such. As a math teacher and former engineer, I cannot do science-math mumbo-jumbo, like this explanation of a reissak: “Its essence is a mathematical construct, a self-referencing tautology, consecrated in the plane of regret…”. Ummm, no, stop right there. There wasn’t much of this, I’m pretty sure Hawkins knows he’s writing pure fantasy. But still, these quasi-pretend-mathematical descriptions were quite aggravating, especially seeing as they were not mathematically profound in any way- but rather, just random collections of mathy-sounding words. (Aaaarrrr! Math-teacher pet-peeve #1: Don’t BS the math! Of course I can tell! Sigh. The story of my grading-life.)
There’s also some good though. Hawkins writes well – I would describe his work as Gaiman-esque, with maybe a slightly more “pulpy” feel. The ways in which he weaves images together kept me reading even though I wanted to quit about every other page. The fact I finished this book at all is a testament to Hawkins’ vibrant, smart, direct way with words.
And, despite my prior complaints about the foundations of Hawkins’ world, I did get the ultimate message about what happens when we allow ourselves to hide from the world in response to pain. If I just look at The Library as an allegory illustrating an important lesson about human reactions to injustice, violence and misfortune, I can see its value.
Conclusion: I was not a fan, but a bit selfishly, I’d recommend it if only so that I can hear your thoughts. Plus a bunch of people love it – so don’t let this review deter you.