Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins

A surrealistic dark fantasy about American gods and monsters.

The Library at Mount Char

Broadway Books, 2016, 388 pages

Carolyn's not so different from the other human beings around her. She's sure of it. She likes guacamole and cigarettes and steak. She knows how to use a phone. She even remembers what clothes are for. After all, she was a normal American herself once. That was a long time ago, of course - before the time she calls "adoption day", when she and a dozen other children found themselves being raised by a man they learned to call Father.

Father could do strange things. He could call light from darkness. Sometimes he raised the dead. And when he was disobeyed, the consequences were terrible. In the years since Father took her in, Carolyn hasn't gotten out much. Instead she and her adopted siblings have been raised according to Father's ancient Pelapi customs. They've studied the books in his library and learned some of the secrets behind his equally ancient power. Sometimes they've wondered if their cruel tutor might secretly be God. Now Father is missing. And if God truly is dead, the only thing that matters is who will inherit his library - and with it power over all of creation.

As Carolyn gathers the tools she needs for the battle to come, fierce competitors for this prize align against her. But can Carolyn win? She's sure of it. What she doesn't realize is that her victory may come at an unacceptable price - because in becoming a god, she's forgotten a great deal about being human.

This is Scott Hawkins's debut novel. He's previously written a lot of technical guides for Linux, Apache, and BEA WebLogic. You know how most computer geeks are always "working on a novel" (at least during NaNoWriMo) if they aren't writing fan fiction? (*cough*cough* Ahem.) Well damn, this was a fantastic first effort, a unique, mythic, at times literary book that deserves at least to be a cult classic.

The Library at Mount Char is a dark fantasy mixed with magical realism mixed with modern mythology; imagine Neil Gaiman trying to tell a Jorge Luis Borges story with elements of H.P. Lovecraft. More HPL's Dreamlands than his Cthulhu mythos.

“The only real escape from hell is to conquer it.”

I must warn readers that it's both a slow burn (that's a pun - you will groan after reading the book) and also a hard start. By which I mean, you will be thrown into a bizarre world in the first few chapters where all the words make sense and form coherent sentences, but you're still wondering wtf is going on. Father's children are studying from their catalogs, learning math, languages, fighting, speaking to animals, and raising the dead. Father can call storms, burn you alive and bring you back to life (and do it repeatedly if he's angry enough). All of his children once lived among the Americans, but now they live in a quiet little forgotten suburb inhabited by the Dead Ones, who continue to mow their lawns and cook brownies.

So, are these people gods? There is something very mythic and godlike about them, in the Olympian mold. Perhaps Greek myths by way of Stephen King. Like the gods, they can be utter, violent assholes, treating mortals as disposable playthings and each other not much better. Yet there are constant references to the Americans, and the modern world. And they grew up as children, and have childhood memories.

Carolyn is the quiet one, mousey and unthreatening. She's been tormented by Father as much as anyone, and tortured and worse by the sociopathic killing machine David, whose catalog is War. But as the story proceeds, we realize that Carolyn is very quietly watching, studying, and with great patience, making plans.

Father inherited the world from the Third Age, when he conquered the Emperor to take possession of reality. He's sadistic and brutal beyond the capacity of any mortal, and yet there seems to be a purpose to his cruelty.

“I must send you into exile, that you may be the coal of her heart. No real thing can be so perfect as memory, and she will need a perfect thing if she is to survive. She will warm herself on the memory of you when there is nothing else, and be sustained.”

It takes a while to see where the story is going, or to see a plot at all. But it develops, and order emerges from the chaos, though it never gets less weird.

This is a violent book; the violence is graphic and horrific at times. These gods can be terrible in ways that make rape-happy Zeus, bloodthirsty Ares and trickster-chaos-clown Loki seem like kids on the playground. But they were once human (except Father), which is Carolyn's challenge: she's forgotten what being human is like. Her interactions with the humans she draws into her schemes leave them, appropriately, terrified and unsettled, trying to figure out how to make this crazy chick who can turn off the sun understand why the rest of the world is freaking out about this.

Lest you think it's all dark, weird godlike beings messing with reality, there is also a lot of at times heroic action by mere mortals, and their dialog with Carolyn is frequently comical in the midst of an apocalypse.

“OK, think of it this way. Do you know how microwaves work?”
“It’s based on microwaves.”
“Oh, wait. I just remembered. I do know how microwaves work, and what you’re saying is bullshit.”
“Fine. It isn’t microwaves.”

And there are some pretty awesome lions.

“Your affection is not meaningless to me, puny one. I shall devour you another day.”

In the nature of a magical realism novel, things don't always get spelled out in a way that makes sense. Things just are. Yet the story reads like a contemporary fantasy; people rooted in the real world confronted with supernatural powers beyond imagining. There is surprising humor at times, and imaginative universe creation. I highly recommend it.

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Tags: books, fantasy, highly recommended, reviews, science fiction

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