The book is The Library at Mount Char, a debut novel that reads nothing like one. When I reached the acknowledgments and learned that its author, Scott Hawkins, had written and thrown out multiple books before this one, I wasn't surprised; it has the feel of something thought through extensively, its convincing account of a distinct imagined world earned through time and labor. I picked it up after reading a staff pick shelf talker at 57th Street Books, my much-loved local, in which the bookseller called The Library at Mount Char "the great book that you wanted American Gods to be." That's a big claim, as the bookseller acknowledged. American Gods, like all of Neil Gaiman's books, has a staggering number of passionate fans. But I was sold: I've always felt that Gaiman's book was more exciting in its conception than its execution, a book of great ideas that doesn't quite fulfill its promise.
The Library at Mount Char does. Like American Gods, it presents a world of ancient knowledge and power hidden behind the ordinary American life we know, and from its very first pages, it plunges the reader into a surprising, almost wholly convincing story of the latter days of that power. Here's the first paragraph:
Carolyn, blood-drenched and barefoot, walked alone down the two-lane stretch of blacktop that the Americans called Highway 78. Most of the librarians, Carolyn included, had come to think of this road as the Path of Tacos, so-called in honor of a Mexican joint they snuck out to sometimes. The guacamole, she remembered, is really good. Her stomach rumbled. Oak leaves, reddish-orange and delightfully crunchy, crackled underfoot as she walked. Her breath puffed white in the predawn air. The obsidian knife she had used to murder Detective Miner lay nestled in the small of her back, sharp and secret.Compelling, no? Hawkins plants so many little seeds in a few short sentences. The combination of quotidian detail and ordinary, almost slangy language--the guacamole, the Path of Tacos, "Mexican joint"--balances the elements that signal something strange, starting with the blood; then "the Americans, phrased so oddly that it makes us pause, if not stumble; then the "obsidian knife," and the murder.This is our world, he's saying, but with a twist. It's intriguing without being off-putting, effective and propulsive while still being just a tiny bit showy.
She was smiling.
All that's set up in that paragraph, and much, much more afterwards, ends up paid off in the book. As Hawkins unveils his invention, we meet the librarians, and we slowly figure out that they're students of a nearly omnipotent tyrant whom they call Father, a force who acts with all the violence, if a bit less of the capriciousness, of the Old Testament god. His disappearance, and presumed murder, has set off a chain of events that, it quickly becomes clear, could destroy the librarians, and possibly even the world.
If this all sounds a bit airy, blame my failure to have the book to hand rather than Hawkins's writing. His scene-setting and revelations of the history and backstories of his characters are incredibly skillful, enabling him to maintain suspense and surprise the reader without ever having us feel that we're being manipulated. The combat, overt and covert, among the various forces (including the American military) vying for power is dramatic and exciting, its outcome feeling genuinely in doubt for long stretches. And the whole book is full of creative ideas and unforgettable details, from the casualness with which the librarians dismantle the grave of one of their fellows and, without explanation, begin to dig up her corpse to the plethora of lore and spells, which feel convincingly ancient in their names and effects. Here's my favorite example of the latter, from late in the book. Carolyn is remembering a time in the past when Father cast a spell, alshaq shabboleth, which changes the relationship of people to time, enabling them, essentially, to move with super speed, which in this case would allow Carolyn to escape disaster:
She looked at [name redacted to avoid spoiler]. He was saying something, or his lips were moving, but she could hear nothing. We were too fast, she realized now. The alshaq shabboleth made us too fast for sound.A few paragraphs later, Hawkins develops the idea still further:
When she moved, the parts of her skin that were exposed to the air felt hot, like the time she had held her fingers over the outflow nozzle on a hair dryer and had burned her fingers.It's a small detail, but an effective one, instantly making the impossible spell seem grounded in actual reality. Then Hawkins gives the alshaq another twist:
Now, today, she understood what was happening. Friction with the air. Under the influence of the alshaq, her speed was such that even the air burned.
Later, when she learned to make the alshaq shabboleth for herself she understood why it worked on her but not him. The effects of the alshaq are felt first by the dead, then by the young, and last by the old.Why? No reason is given, but we don't really want one: it just feels right that such a disordering of the known universe would have its own logic, and it makes the spell, and the world it comes from, feel just that tiny bit more real.
Even in its last pages, The Library at Mount Char continues to surprise, offering a couple of moments so inventive and well-conceived that they achieve the rare goal of feeling simultaneously wholly surprising and, once we read of them, inevitable. The result is an often creepy, action-oriented dark fantasy novel that ends by being genuinely moving.
The Library at Mount Char is a book I'll be telling people about--and lending to friends--for a long time to come. Your October will be the better, and the shiverier, for giving it a try.