Title: The Library at Mount Char
Author: Scott Hawkins
Carolyn, blood-drenched and barefoot, walked alone down the two-lane stretch of blacktop that the Americans called Highway 78.
Carolyn has grown up in the library at Garrison Oaks for most of her life, since the day her parents died and she was taken in – together with eleven other children – by a man they all call Father. Each one of them was tasked with learning a very specific fraction of his god-like knowledge, constantly tested and strictly punished by Father when they fail to show enough progress.
Until one day Father disappears, the library is suddenly inaccessible to all of them, and they need to figure out what’s happened and what to do now. Did any of his thousand-year-old enemies finally catch up with him? And what will happen if they can’t get in the library anymore, and all the knowledge inside it is lost to them?
It’s only a matter of time before they start turning on each other for possession of the library, but Carolyn has already accounted for this. And she has a plan.
A closer look
If you haven’t read this book and you plan to, wait until you have before you read this review. There are very mild spoilers for the first couple of chapters only, but I think the best way to enjoy the story is to go into it knowing absolutely nothing. You can always come back here later.
If you don’t mind a bit of introduction, though, keep going. There are no major spoilers, I promise.
Before we delve a little bit more into the plot, a word about the library.
I love this concept. The idea that all the knowledge in the world – maybe the universe itself! – could be stored in a physical place and accessed by a selected few is one of my wet dreams.
In this instance, the library comprises of twelve catalogs: war, death, healing, languages, animals, maths and so on and so forth. Well, I say “so on”, because sadly we are never really gifted with a full list of the subject – unless I read the book so quickly that the mention of it didn’t stick in my mind, but I doubt it – but we are only introduced to the five or six that are most important for the story. Which makes absolutely sense, but at the same time I wanted to know more, and I kind of wish we had that chance. Even if it probably doesn’t make any sense story-wise.
That said, let’s get into the story.
Carolyn is the kid tasked with learning languages. Which is not only more or less every single human language, past and present, but also animal languages and many other things that I don’t really remember at the moment. I should have taken notes while I was reading, but I was too engrossed to stop for this kind of stuff. Anyway, even though it looks like a pretty innocuous catalog, we soon discover that Carolyn is hiding something: she says she can properly plan only in her dreams, since it’s the only place where Father and David – the one tasked with the war catalog – can’t reach her thoughts; and her fingers tremble slightly every time she’s trying to suppress her emotions in their presence.
Most of the other siblings are talked about only in passing. The most crucial to the story is certainly David: he knows everything about fights, weapons, wars, and all the ways to suppress pain and stuff. He is cruel, ruthless and somehow one of my favourite characters. Go figure.
The other ones we get to know a little are Margaret, who’s been travelling to the land of the dead since she was little and is definitely touched by the experience at this point; Jennifer, who knows healing and is tasked with the resurrection of her siblings every time they mess up or Father punishes them; and Michael, who knows all the animal speeches but struggles to remember how to talk to other humans.
Of the other siblings we only know names, and they have little to no weight on the story.
Let’s now talk about Steve. Steve’s parents are dead as well, and he grew up with an aunt who didn’t give a shit about him. He grew up stealing and selling drugs, until his best friend got caught to allow him to escape, and he decided he needed to change. He’s now a simple plumber, until Carolyn crosses his way and convinces him to rob a house. He hesitates, tries to talk himself into leaving that kind of life in the past, but Carolyn’s offer is too good to refuse. Pity that he dies during the robbery, and then gets accused with the murder of the policeman himself. Yes, in that order. Trust me, you don’t want to know too much.
Last but not least is Erwin. He had a tough time getting out of the army and building a new life at home, but he’s finally happy with himself and his job with Homeland Security. A strange robbery in which the bank employees just helped the robbers without even being threatened brings him to seek out Carolyn, one of the perpetrators. He then follows her trail to Steve, and as he’s trying to understand how the woman is connected to the two cases, his path crosses David’s and things start to go down.
All of this happens more or less in the first few chapters, and I’ll stop here before I get into too many details. I believe the best thing is going into this book without knowing too much, and just enjoy the wild ride.
My only wish is that we got to know more about Father and the library itself. Also, the book reaches its climax quite early, and the last hundred or so pages feel like a long epilogue. I still loved it, and it cleared a few questions, but it was not really well paced. I’m sure enough we could have had some of the same answers in a less harrowing way.
That said, I truly enjoyed this book, and I see now why a lot of people compared it to Middlegame. The drive to knowledge has a very similar vibe, but everything else differs a lot. I’m still considering, but I think this book could make it to my favourites of the year.