The Invisible Library Is My Fantasy Novel Comfort Food

The Invisible Library Is My Fantasy Novel Comfort Food
Image: Ace Books

Things are a bit better. They’re still not great. Do you need another new refuge of enjoyable entertainment and simple pleasure to bury yourself in, away from the world? Head to the library.

Head to Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library series, to be exact. It’s gotten me through a chunk of the last few months after I was sick of binging shows I only partially wanted to watch and completing video games out of a sad sense of self-obligation. To continue the “comfort food” metaphor, I had been living on frozen TV dinners, and then someone dropped a big box of chocolate-coated doughnuts in my lap.

Being a librarian in a former life, I fully admit part of what drew me to the series was the premise: There’s a library hidden somewhere between a host of parallel worlds. It’s enormous and mysterious and extremely magical and has special employees who head from world to world to grab rare books that might have appeared nowhere else in reality.

These librarians have another job, which is maintaining the balance between the forces of Order — mainly Chinese-style dragons who can also transform into humans — and Chaos, represented by the Fae, who tend to be mischievous at best and outright evil at worst. But the Fae have the neat gimmick of being locked in literary archetypes that they themselves cannot break, and corrupting others into becoming characters in their story. When the Fae get too strong a hold on a world, their drama essentially becomes absolute.

Although our hero Irene Winter starts as a book-acquirer (thief), the series pretty much pivots entirely into the coldish war between the dragons and the Fae, which is complicated by Irene’s new partner, Kai, the first dragon to ever become a librarian trainee. Through the series, Irene and Kai foil a few Fae plots, solve a few murders, battle the one evil Voldemort-ish librarian a few times, foil a few dragon plots because they’re kind of arseholes too, and visit a variety of worlds of different genres.

Cogman’s world-building is solid and steady, and it’s one of the things that has made the Invisible Library series so satisfying to read. But the series’ greatest draw, to me, is Irene herself. She’s smart, quick-witted, compelling, daring, caring, etc., as classic fantasy heroes so often are. But even while she’s being a quick-witted badass and/or saving the world(s), there’s a realness to her inner monologue — doubt, fear, constant concern for others, vulnerability, and terror as the situation warrants it — that forms a bedrock that keeps what would otherwise be an extremely and whimsically hard fantasy setting just grounded enough to keep from feeling ridiculous.

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In fact, the depth of her character is so strong it’s been extremely easy for me to roll with the series’ flaws. For instance, the Fae aren’t the only part of the books that drift toward established story tropes over time. There are eventually a few secrets revealed about Irene that you’d only guess if you’ve read heroic fantasy books before. More irksomely, the series tends to drop major, overarching story revelations at the end of the book — as is standard procedure and is totally fine — but it’s glaringly bizarre that neither Irene nor any other character follows up on any of these bombshell revelations, when instead they should be throttling people to get answers. Instead, Irene and Kai and the rest wait patiently until the end of the next book, when the next bombshell hits, and repeat. However, once I realised this was going to be the pattern, I sort of found it a charming foible. It’s certainly nothing that spoiled the immense enjoyment the Invisible Library has given me over its seven novels (and counting) — such is the power of Irene.

Look, the series likely isn’t going to become your new A Song of Ice and Fire or Kingkiller Chronicles (not least because Cogman churns out new volumes at a gratifyingly steady pace). But if other current entertainment offerings are looking unappetizing to you, please consider stuffing your face with the fun, charming, character-driven chocolate-coated doughnuts of the Invisible Library. It has significantly better metaphors, I promise.