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Monday, May 18, 2020

The Library of the Unwritten by AJ Hackwith (Reviewed by David Stewart)



The unintentional horror of The Library of the Unwritten might specifically apply to me. I have been a librarian for most of my adult life, and also a writer. The main character of The Library of the Unwritten is a woman named Claire, librarian of Hell's library and an author whose own literary ideas never found fruition. As I read though AJ Hackwith's novel, I couldn't help but feel a little called out. There is an idea in this book that if an author thinks about their unwritten character enough, that character will manifest and start walking around in the world. The idea of meeting my own main character, and the overwhelming guilt that would follow that meeting, terrifies me. Why did AJ Hackwith write a book specifically to shame me into finishing my own?

Strengths

The idea of a library in hell where unwritten books go to linger is a good one, but it isn't unique. The first time I came across such an idea was in Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novel series, where the lead character has exactly this kind of library in his domain. In Gaiman's work, the idea is not fully fleshed out and is only really mentioned in passing. Hackwith runs with the notion, sets her library in Hell (because apparently unwritten ideas don't make it to Heaven), and sets a story in it. I'll admit, I am always a little uncomfortable when authors decide to claim the existence of a Judeo-Christian Heaven and Hell, but Hackwith softens this fear with the inclusion of other religions, including Valhalla which is always a plus with me, and even some dead ones. Claire's journey takes readers on a ride, and along the way she gathers up a ragtag group of adventurers to help and hinder her. Claire herself is an excellent lead, fleshed out and sympathetic, while being deeply flawed (let's face it, she wouldn't have earned her turn as Hell's librarian if she weren't full of regrets).

There would be a real danger, in a novel like this, of abusing its connection and adoration of books and the written word. Puns would kill The Library of the Unwritten, and I am happy to say that it handles its connection with literature in as deft and plausible way as it could. The concept of book characters coming to life could feel hokey, on paper, and it takes suspension of disbelief to make it work even in this book, but that's the nature of fantasy. The meta-conversation about how characters are alive is in full swing here - many of Hackwith's inside-the-book characters feel as fleshed out as her "real" characters, and that says something about a writer's ability to humanize imagination. Of particular note is when Claire's history reveals that she has literally fallen in and out of love with one of her characters, revealing the kind of tangled psychology that would require months of therapy to unravel. What could have been a comedy fantasy about living books in Hackwith's hands becomes something much deeper.

I also had a moment in this book, which is full of beautiful prose and captivating imagery, when I was imagining the actual library. I thought of all those stories, potentially billions, that had never been written down, never conceptualized beyond the step of creation, and it hurt. It made me physically uncomfortable to think about every story that someone felt too afraid to write down, or show someone else, or to even think about for fear that they might not be praised, or worse, might be shunned. This was perhaps an unintended moment for the author, but a welcome one for a reader.

Weaknesses

As much as I did like The Library of the Unwritten, there were aspects of it that prevented it from being truly great - even for a library book nerd like me. Many of these hiccups are parallel to the book's strengths. For instance, the inclusion of non-Judeo-Christian religions was a nice nod, but it almost feels like a begrudging addition. I never had the sense that any of these other religions carried any weight, and it was the belief in Heaven and Hell that was the supreme arbiter of faith. Now, this tracks on a percentage basis, Christians and Muslims make up the majority of the world's religious, but it feels like it places too much weight on one particular belief. Nor does it take into account the nearly one billion or so folks who claim no faith or a faith that lies outside of the major ones. This same critique can be applied to a dozen authors who write books like this, Gaiman, Pratchett, Moore, etc., and it likely boils down to the author's own background and shouldn't be counted as a ding against the book, but I would have really loved a deeper exploration of faith-based systems that did not center so much on Judeo-Christian beliefs. Perhaps that's asking too much for a book that carries a lighter hearted tone than many that deal in religion.

I mentioned liking Claire quite a bit, and I did, but I had some issues with other characters in the novel. Leto, for one, who is a good character in his own right, feels largely forced into the story for a big reveal later that, for me, fell completely flat. There are actually a few characters in the book that feel largely purposeless, but is it fair to criticize characters, even well-written ones, for not serving much purpose? Probably not.

To again parallel some of my earlier thoughts on the strengths of The Library of the Unwritten, while the reference to books and writing are well done, there is also a pattern of characters consistently trying to say these lines as though they are trying to get into Barlett's Book of Quotations. If it hadn't happened so often, I might not have noticed, but the novel has a persistence of characters basically turning to the camera and delivering one-liners that they hope will feel meaningful but ultimately feel a little cheesy.

The last area where The Library of the Unwritten falls flat for me is in its inability to go further. This is a series, so perhaps this critique will correct itself in subsequent novels, but for a book about the power of imagination, the sheer depth and breadth of it, it stays fairly tame. When I consider the amount of unwritten stories in a library like this, how many tales the author had to draw from with almost no limitation, I find myself disappointed in how mundane some of the events of the book play out. There is a climactic scene at the end, in particular, that could have really been a memorable one, but it plays out in a predictable way with one contrived deus ex machina moment that made me sad to read.

If You Liked

I was a little surprised, given the clear influences, that the author did not mention Neil Gaiman in her acknowledgements. This book screams Good Omens and Sandman to me, but I will acknowledge that similar ideas can bloom in different minds at different times. Regardless, readers who enjoy the more Judeo-Christian tones of some of Gaiman's England-centered work will find this enjoyable. I also found some pretty heavy similarities to Christopher Moore, particularly in the early parts of the novel which are more comedic in tone than some of the latter. Fans of books about big mystical libraries also might find some similarities to Scott Hawkins' fantastic Library at Mount Char, though Hawkins' book is a fair bit darker in tone then Hackwith's.

Parting Thoughts

The Library of the Unwritten is a book that, on paper, I should love. I liked it, and I will probably read the second book in the series when it is released later this year. Hackwith's writing is very good, and I only would wish for a stronger exploration of her material to really love what she is doing with these books. I am happy that she will continue with Claire as her main character because her complexity and range is really refreshing to read. I would like to see some of the adjacent characters brought up to that level, but ultimately the series feels like it belongs to Claire and I am ok with that. She is the librarian. 

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