LitStack Review: The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

by Sharon Browning

The Library at Mount CharThe Library at Mount Char
Scott Hawkins
Crown Publishers
Release Date:  June 16, 2015
ISBN 978-0-553-41860-6

When doing research for this review, I was gladdened to read that Scott Hawkins, the author of The Library at Mount Char, likes to do such ordinary and mundane (in a good way) things such as woodworking, computer programming, and “cooking long and impractical recipes.”  I was especially soothed to learn that he and his wife foster a “large pack” of dogs, with which he enjoys playing the sweet and innocent game of fetch.

Because, you see, nothing in The Library at Mount Char is mundane, nothing is ordinary, and dogs really don’t come off as critters that you would ever want to interact with in a playful way.  No, this chilling book is full of horrible, gory, unsympathetic things that will make you cringe.  It will also keep you spellbound, it will entice you to read the next chapter, the next chapter and the next chapter, and even at its darkest, it will give you reason to – gasp! – hope.  For what, you’re rarely sure.  But for all its blood and exposed bone, cruelty and insensitivity, guile and savagery, it never gives in to despair, debauchery or detachment.  Take it from me, a card carrying horror genre wimp – this is one great book.

Carolyn Sopaski is a librarian.  But she’s not like any librarian you would ever hope to meet.  When she was a small child, her parents died and she was “adopted” by a being that she only knows as Father.  Father was very strong, very wise, and had been around for a long time.  A very long time.  Like, 60,000 years of time.  In that time he had amassed a huge amount of knowledge, which he had set down over the millennia in journals within twelve different catalogs, stored within the Library.  Each of his adopted children was assigned one of these catalogs to master, and to learn the old ways of the Palapi, as Father had learned.  For Carolyn and her “siblings”, there was no television, no movies or play dates; instead, there were “shadows and ancient books, handwritten on thick parchment.”  And the children were expected to be very, VERY diligent in their studies.

Carolyn’s catalog is Languages.  By the time she appeared to be in 30s (who knows how old she really is, though – time passes very differently in the Library), she had learned all the languages, both modern and ancient, including rudimentary knowledge of the language of the animals.  Her brother Michael’s catalog is Animals, their ways and their natures.  Jennifer’s is Healing, Peter’s is Mathematics.  Margaret’s is Death.  David’s, though, is the worst, for it made him cruel and strong and inhuman.  David’s catalog is War.

And always, Father drives their studies, tests their knowledge.  He, himself, knows all; wonders spill from his fingertips.  But he is also stern, and unflinchingly fair sans compassion, and he can be very, very cruel when meting out punishment.  Now, Father is missing.  He often would travel away from the Library, but this time, he has been gone for longer than anyone can remember, and he cannot be found, anywhere:  not in the world, not in the underworld, not in the future.  Rumors swirl that perhaps, somehow, he is dead, beyond the reach of even the underworld.  And in this uncertainty, his enemies are moving.  The siblings must use the knowledge they have gathered to find Father and to protect the Library itself, for whoever controls the Library controls power over life, death, and indeed, over all of creation. Some of them realize, however, that their biggest adversaries in this grasping for power might just be each other.

Yet in all this talk of gods and monsters, what sets The Library at Mount Char apart is how very human its characters are.  Father’s children may live in a place set apart from our own, but they are not strangers to modern civilization; much of their study takes them out into our world.  Carolyn may not know how to work a car door handle, and she may have no concept of the value of money, and she certainly has an eclectic flair to her personal style, but she knows about cigarettes and phones, mouthwash and guacamole.  She may raise eyebrows when she’s out and about, but she doesn’t raise suspicion.  Which is good, because Carolyn is working on a plan; a plan to save the Library, a plan to thwart her adversaries.  But she can’t implement her plan alone, or even with her siblings – in fact, she especially can’t do it with her siblings…

That’s where Steve comes in.  Steve is a nobody, really.  Well, he’s an independent plumber, with no family but his cocker spaniel, Petey.  He likes it that way.  Back when he was a kid, after his parents died and he moved in with his aunt in her doublewide and her drunken boyfriends, he started doing petty crimes to keep himself in food and cash, but he had given that all up after a frightening brush with the law.  Now for the last ten years he’s lived a quiet, law abiding life; that is, until he meets this gal at a bar, dressed in a Christmas sweater, spandex bike shorts, red galoshes and honest to goodness 1980s leg warmers, who asks him over shots and chicken wings if he wants to break into a house.  Her name is Carolyn, and she’s carrying a duffle bag with $327,000 in it, and it will be all his if he just helps her out this once…

The Library at Mount Char is one of the very few horror/fantasy books that I’ve ever read that has had me both shocked and laughing out loud on the same page.  Many horror writers are very clever, but their humor is predicated on the macabre.  Mr. Hawkins’ humor flows from the vagary of human nature.  Plus, the sentiment we encounter in this book is believable and universal; we can relate to what even the most twisted of characters is going through… to a point (which is also incredibly relevant and pushes the story).

As with the characters, so goes the narrative.  The plot twists come so effortlessly that I wasn’t even looking for them, but oh, did they work well.  I often found myself surprised, not because I was not astute enough, but because the situation did not even whisper for foreshadowing nor reek of red herring.  There is plenty of gore and mayhem in the book, but when it is excessive (and sometimes it is), it is excessive for a reason.  When there is cruelty (and there is, even arbitrarily) it is there for a reason.  Sometimes a stupid, mindless, messed up reason, but a reason that feels genuine.

And The Library at Mount Char is one of the few books I’ve read where the swell of the “action” does not dictate the story.  So often we are led to a dramatic climax that ends the tale – the breakneck chase, the final fight between good and evil, the emotional reveal that morphs directly to “and they all lived (or didn’t live) happily ever after.”  In The Library at Mount Char, the world has been changed by the dramatic climax, and the aftermath is not rushed nor simplified for the sake of convention.  We get to live with the consequences of the actions, and although it was originally confusing to read (due to our conditioning of climax = end), it was oh, so gratifying to have the story continue after the shooting had stopped (more or less).  This continuation, this letting the story resolve at the story’s pace rather than convention’s pace felt respectful, and dang, I liked that.  It made me appreciate this debut novel even beyond the powerful writing, the encompassing characters and the exceptional story line.

But still, I won’t tell you about the dogs.  I’ll let you find out for yourself.

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tmduncan 29 August, 2015 - 2:03 pm

For me, the climax coming in the middle of the story was a big problem. Sure, I’m all for a novel that goes against the grain and plays with traditional structure, but the result here is really unsatisfying. The climax arrives abruptly, with a rather predictable twist, and the remaining 100 pages act as a massive info dump, providing answers to questions I didn’t even really care to consider. I was fine not knowing the exact rules to the universe this novel inhabits.

Sharon Browning 2 September, 2015 - 2:07 pm

I imagine you aren’t the only one who feels that way, Mr. Duncan! I, however, found it refreshing. I do want to know what happens after the climax, and appreciated how the story circled back to give me something that truly felt complete. But that just goes to show you how diverse a readership can be! Thanks for your comment.

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