The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

The Library at Mount Char book cover
Rating 9.0/10
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Possibly due to growing up with Doctor Who, possibly due to just me being a fairly eclectic individual, I’ve never cared too much about genre boundaries. Oh, there are times I might fancy a change of setting, and might swap modern day horror for dystopia, or exchange some traditional space sf for a bit of high fantasy, but that is just another destination for my literary Tardis and sooner or later I know I’ll be setting the randomiser and be off somewhen else. Naturally, this also means that I have a distinct fondness for books which don’t fit easily into one category or another.

So when I heard tell of a book which was apparently so hard to categorise it was said to be in a genre of its own, I of course had to try it.

Carolyn can barely remember being American. When she was eight, on the day her parents died, the nearly omnipotent being she calls Father took her and eleven other children to become Pelapi; that is librarians, to guard The Library which exists outside normal time and space and each master one of the twelve catalogues which contain Father’s vast knowledge. Under Father’s brutal instruction, Carolyn and the other Pelapi have gained fantastic powers, though at costs they cannot fully comprehend. When Father goes missing however, reality hangs in the balance, since cruel though Father could be, there are worse things even than him, dark and hungry beings which have been waiting. Not the least of these are the Pelapi themselves, such is Carolyn’s psychotic brother David, adept in the arts of war and murder, or Margarette who walks the land of the dead.

Carolyn however has a plan, a plan that stretches into the past and future, a plan for the one thing she wants most; revenge!

I can say very few books have grabbed my attention from the first page quite as successfully as Scott Hawkins did here. I always like being pitched straight into a fantastic world and then having to sink or swim and this is exactly how the book starts, with no attempts to ease the reader in gently or time wasted on explanations. I’ve seen many a review praise Hawkins for his imagination and I absolutely agree, indeed Hawkins shares with JRR Tolkien, Stephen King and HP Lovecraft that rare gift of always placing you on the edge of a vast and exotic world with the sense that wonders and terrors beyond comprehension are waiting around the next corner, and for all the fantastic things you do see, there is always something deeper, darker or stranger just out of reach.

What is more, is that while Carolyn and her fellow Pelapi are fairly casual about some aspects of the fantasy world, there are plainly others that terrify them, not the least Father himself.

For all this, Hawkins style is strangely brief and lacking in overly flowery prose, though given that much of what he describes is so profoundly mysterious; lack of circumlocution is almost a bonus.

A central part of the world of the Pelapi is brutality. Both in the present and past torture and occasional death is something they tend to take in stride. This leads to some truly horrific moments, including one early scene which is perhaps one of the single most hideously, fascinatingly awful things I’ve ever read, not just in terms of what happens, but also in terms of Carolyn’s speculations about it, and the profound effect it has on one character and on the Pelapi as a whole.

This trauma also means that for all Carolyn’s protestations that she’s a comparatively normal person, all of the Pelapi are in some way slightly warped, both by their traumatic training, and by the catalogue they study. Michael for example, Carolyn’s gentle brother has become almost feral through contact with animals and his retreat from Father’s brutal regime, whilst Jenifer, the soft hearted healer who must actually perform most of the resurrections and healings has become a chronic stoner, retreating into a drugged out haze.

One problem I did have, is while we get to see a lot of several of the Pelapi, others were only given cursory character sketches at most, whilst others did not appear at all, even though they apparently were present for most of the book’s events, indeed the gamer in me would love to get a break down of all twelve librarians and the nature of their catalogues, whilst the reader in me is sorry that such potentially fascinating characters as Rachel, a prophet who sees possibility through the ghosts of her murdered children barely register, Indeed to say that early on Carolyn mentions that she doesn’t know Jenifer well, it was a little odd that we got to see so much of her and so little of many of the others.

When we are introduced to a couple of characters from the real world, both Hawkins strengths and weaknesses begin to show. Like James Herbert or Stephen King, Hawkins is able to give a short but intensive character portrait and history making the worlds of his human characters as rich as that the Pelapi. I also really admired the way he was able to show the Pelapi through seemingly every day human eyes, and show just how twisted even the nicest of them are, Carolyn most definitely included.

Unfortunately however, Hawkins ability to give us character portraits is not always carried over in dialogue or setting. It makes sense for example that the Pelapi are all cold and somewhat snarky, and the rather casual way they deal with the fantastic provides many of the book’s more surreal moments. When however we are introduced to Plummer Steve, and Erwin, a war hero and homeland security agent, we get exactly the same level and standard of dialogue, even across situations that really should be taken quite a lot more seriously. Indeed, while the book has its share of truly lovable characters, there was nobody who it was really possible to like.

Speaking of Erwin, it was a little odd in a book largely centred around conflict with powers beyond space to have one of the major characters be a war hero and decorated military officer who not only brags about his kill count, but is free to tell you what a “bad ass” he is, and whose only genuflection in the direction of being a decent human being was to teach a boy being bullied special forces attack techniques so he could “stand up for himself”.

Several times throughout the book we have examples of karmic horror, those occasions in which the self-serving, bureaucratic or petty minded arsehole suddenly comes up against something they cannot cope with and gets justly and roundly slaughtered as a result, and this was initially where I thought Erwin’s story was going, especially given David’s superhuman combat skills. Yet, in his anti-authoritarian attitude and supposed baddassery Hawkins seemed to think we were supposed to identify with, or at least admire Erwin. Not that someone cannot be a soldier, even a soldier who takes pride in war and also be a likable character, just that telling me how tough a character is even as they spout of quips and engage in self-aggrandisement is not usually a way to make me like that character. I also was a little confused at some of the military worship that goes on here, indeed I suspect both Erwin and the heavy emphasis on the US military is likely a carry over from a high ranking officer whom Hawkins is friends with and to whom the book is dedicated. Hawkins does however manage to avoid the usual slant into nationalism that often occurs when American writers like Scott Sigler or Dean Koontz discuss the military, though I still found it a bit strange how, instead of speaking of muggles or mortals or humans, everyone who is not Pelapi are apparently all Americans; which felt a little strange given that I’m neither an American nor a semi immortal librarian myself.

One of the book’s strongest aspects is undoubtedly its pacing. I got through the entire 15 hours in less than three days (sleepless nights included). Part of this was the truly mysterious world of the Pelapi (I always love exploration), however another major part was that this was a book you really couldn’t predict. I can see why people call this book genre bending, since one second you’re in the pure fantasy territory of weird gods and trans dimensional space, the next you suddenly have a police procedural investigation of a particularly bizarre murder, then your suddenly into a military thriller, or a slice of monster horror with an apocalypse or two. All of this makes for something fast, compelling and richly varied.

The problem however, is that while there is always something cool going on, the more you actually try to think about how things hang together the less well events stand up, indeed The Library at Mount Char has the odd distinction of being a book which actually gets worse the more you think about it. This occurs on both a minor and macro level. For example, a large deal is made of the fact that the Pelapi do not really understand clothes. David for example carries out bloody murders whilst sporting a military flak jacket and a purple tutu. Yet, even if we skate across the staggering coincidence of how a six foot four burley psychopath happened to run into a tutu big enough to fit him, doesn’t it occur to the Pelapi that “the Americans” around them aren’t dressed that way? This is especially true of Carolyn, who has supposedly studied all languages, including every human language in the world as well as the language of storms and the speech of various animals, and yet still calls pizza cheese bread. Even when Hawkins tries to explain these inconsistencies, such as when Carolyn explains to Steven that she thought “cell phones” were phones invented by a “Mr Cell” so knew nothing about mobile phone technology, wouldn’t she have seen people using them?

Sadly, these sorts of inconsistencies also affect the plot at a larger level, with convoluted chains of events which apparently are just there to stick packages of awesome moments together. For instance we first meet Carolyn running down a highway in a bloody silk dress and bare feet; stone knife in hand, having just carried out a murder, and though the murder (or at least the body of the victim), plays its part, we never actually find out why she killed him. Similarly, when later the Pelapi need an American to carry out a particular job, they first rob a bank by hypnotising the staff into filling a bag with money, use that money to bribe someone into committing a crime, have David break said criminal out of prison with subsequent killing spree, then phone the president and threaten him into offering the criminal a pardon in recompense for carrying out the job.

Then again, oddly enough when Hawkins does take the time to explain matters, his ability to link random elements together is extremely good, indeed I particularly liked how a couple of throwaway lines at the start have later consequences, and how one glaring inconsistency which at the time is not commented on proves to be a major plot significance, and one which leads back to a scene which was seemingly nothing but another example of Father’s cruelty. This is one reason why the inconsistencies which do occur are rather more frustrating than they otherwise might have been, since unlike some writers, Hawkins is quite capable of having events link up successfully, even beautifully when he tries, such as the Mount Char mentioned in the book’s title.

Similarly, several times excessive force is used rather arbitrarily. This is understandable for Father and the Pelapi who obviously work on a slightly different scale, however even normal characters seemed to regard violence or threats as a first resort, something which again made neither Steve nor Erwin, our supposed perspective characters particularly easy to sympathise with.

On the one hand, the book’s final third enhances several of its problems. Many characters who we didn’t get to know are written off rather summarily while the action slows down to being about two people stuck in The Library having a chat, indeed even the so called compassionate character here is fairly casual about the fact that the world is undergoing several apocalypses at once at this stage, apocalypses whose affects we don’t actually see on an individual level. Maybe however this was Hawkins intention, giving us a Pelapi’s eye view of events and explaining just why Carolyn might be losing any humanity she had, particularly with how even the concern of the compassionate person here is explained rather coldly, and even jeered at slightly. Indeed, Carolyn’s final revenge is something truly terrible which it doesn’t pay to think too much about since it’s absolutely nightmarish.

That being said, other aspects of Carolyn’s resolution seemed inconsistent, particularly in what atrocities she was prepared to accept, and what atrocities she felt a need to avenge. Yet, maybe this was absolutely intentional since one continual thread which runs through the book is the fact that the concerns of Father and the Pelapi are so far beyond the concerns of ordinary Americans, that even horrific torture and the scars it leaves cannot be approached in a human way.

I also admired the way Hawkins does take the obvious solution to one plot (a solution I spotted from the beginning), yet shows more of its consequences and ramifications than I would’ve expected, indeed I can see why he made the book’s final third so quiet since exploring this revelation needed to happen in more depth, even though his offhand, rather cold dialogue wasn’t quite at the depth such an explanation needed.

Library at Mount Char has garnered almost universal praise, and I can certainly see why. It’s one of the most profoundly compelling books I’ve read for quite some time, with terror, wonder and glimpses into the truly horrific. That being said, in many ways it’s still a first novel, with a need to connect the dots, polish its characters and in general smooth off a rough edge or two. Were I able to completely switch off my critical faculties and just run with it, I’d undoubtedly be lording the book without reservation, and there are even books I’ve been able to do that with in the past, though Mount Char isn’t one of them. Maybe it’s that Hawkins gives us so much to think about I just can’t switch off my brain, maybe it’s that Hawkins lack of poetry didn’t quite engage me on an emotional level, or heck maybe it’s just that I’m intellectualising way too much myself; one of the perils of studying philosophy.

Whatever my after thoughts and questions though, there’s no doubt Hawkins has created something truly exceptional here. A book that incorporates so much and yet still just dips the surface of a fantastic world with horror, surrealism and gallows humour and even a few moments of pathos, and is there for one I’d most heartily recommend.

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