This is a very belated review, but that’s entirely a reflection on my life going haywire, because I raced through this fantastic adventure!
Book: The Library of the Unwritten by AJ Hackwith
Read before: No
Publication date: 11th February 2020
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Titan Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Discussion of suicide; discussion of death in general and the afterlife; drowning.
In Hell, there is a library wing filled with unfinished books clamouring to get back to their potential authors and convince them to finish writing. When one such book escapes in the form of its cocky, too-handsome hero, Head Librarian Claire must track him down – but one thing leads to another, and soon Claire and her friends are entangled in a quest for a book that Heaven will do anything to prevent Hell getting its hands on. Essentially, imagine if The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman had a baby with Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and you’d be some way to envisaging the vibe of this story!
This book is plain good fun – from the get-go, you’re plunged into a world of sarcasm, peril, and stories. For a book set in Hell and various other afterlives, this is surprisingly lighthearted and cheerful! The library instantly enchanted me, as did world-weary Claire, who really would like to be left alone to do her job. The concept – unwritten books unhappy with their outcomes – thumbs its nose at tropes in a fond way, with damsels fed up of needing to be rescued, and librarians rolling their eyes at yet another leading man with sharp cheekbones and sharper wit. Books about books can often be a little bit pretentious, but this manages to sidestep any of that with its sense of humour – certainly anyone who has a shelved novel from their teens will find themselves laughing along with the clever, but loving, skewering of writing cliches. I would have loved even more of a look into the workings of the library! The unwritten characters we do meet are so perfectly portrayed that I wish we’d seen more of them. What we do get to see, though, is a fascinating trip through various afterlives, including a hugely entertaining trip to Valhalla, complete with a bard battle, and a location which totally surprised me – Mdina, the walled city of Malta, which is somewhere I’ve visited several times and is one of my favourite places. It was so cool to see it used in a magical way!
There’s a strong theme of found family here, and it really is the interactions between the characters that make this such a breeze to read. I’ve mentioned Claire’s sarcastic, capable attitude, but on the Library’s side (ish) there’s also Brevity, a minor Muse and Assistant Librarian; Leto, a teenage demon (or possibly just emo); and Hero, an unwritten book in the form of an arrogant, gorgeous man. While Claire and Brevity have worked together for a while, the latter two are new additions to their crew, and it’s really enjoyable to watch the ways the four of them learn to work together. My favourite character, though, was probably Ramiel, an angel torn between the Greater Good and the moral good – I really loved his chapters, both for his own character and for the insight they gave into the workings of Heaven. It would be easy, and cliche, to paint Heaven as the bad guys and Hell as the plucky underdogs, but actually, Ramiel’s chapters offer some much needed greyness to the worldbuilding. He is perhaps the character that changes the most across the course of the book, and I looked forward to seeing his perspective.
It’s refreshing to have a book with minimal romance – there’s the odd moment of flirting, and discussion of past relationships, but the focus here is on the race to save the Library, and I think a romance subplot would have felt shoehorned in, so that was really pleasing. I genuinely think that a good chunk of the fantasy I’ve read would be much improved without the need to set the main character up with someone, and here it definitely works. The emphasis is on this motley group of unlikely allies pushing and pulling amongst themselves, and that dynamic works perfectly as it is. It also means we get a much needed kind of representation – a pansexual main character (with labels discussed on page!) whose personality doesn’t revolve around how much sex they have. As I say, refreshing!
This is a rare thing – a book about books that doesn’t have a high entry level in terms of literary knowledge. There’s almost zero name-checking, so don’t be concerned if you’re not a lover of classic literature. If you’re a writer yourself, you’ll get a lot out of the snark around the unwritten books, but I don’t think that not being a writer would mean you lose any of the fun! This is a great, light-hearted adventure – we need more adult fantasy like this that just revels in being a romp. You could definitely read this as a standalone, but I’m really looking forward to the sequel, The Archive of the Forgotten, which came out at the beginning of October in the US (Feb 2021 for the UK). Four out of five cats!