There’s a pretty common problem that many first books in a series suffer from. And that’s an overall lack of focus. Often, the first books of a series try to be too many things all at once. They introduce a host of characters. They spend a lot of time expanding the series’ universe, sowing the seeds for future books. And they try to tell their own self-contained, satisfying narratives. Some books get the balancing act between all of these perfectly right. Others don’t. The Library of the Dead falls into the latter camp, suffering from a pretty chronic case of first-book-in-a-series syndrome. It’s not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination. It just tries to be too many different things at once and comes off as unfocused instead of compelling. All of the elements are there, but the plot, itself, feels a bit like an afterthought. (3.5 out of 5 wands.)
NOTE: I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley and Tor Books. All thoughts are my own. This review will be as spoiler free as possible, though may contain very light spoilers.
The Library of the Dead
By T.L. Huchu
Ropa dropped out of school to become a ghostalker. Now she speaks to Edinburgh’s dead, carrying messages to the living. A girl’s gotta earn a living, and it seems harmless enough. Until, that is, the dead whisper that someone’s bewitching children–leaving them husks, empty of joy and life. It’s on Ropa’s patch, so she feels honor-bound to investigate. But what she learns will change her world.
She’ll dice with death (not part of her life plan…), discovering an occult library and a taste for hidden magic. She’ll also experience dark times. For Edinburgh hides a wealth of secrets, and Ropa’s gonna hunt them all down.
Ropa is a ghostalker—she can see and speak with ghosts and will deliver messages to the loved ones of the recently deceased. For a fee, of course. One ghost, however, convinces Ropa to look into the disappearance of her son. She’s rather concerned since his friend, who disappeared alongside him, was returned to his family as no more than a husk of his former self, devoid of joy, strength, and youth. Something is attacking the children of Edinburgh and Ropa is going to figure out what is happening, and why. Even if her journey takes her to a strange, magical library and an even stranger, dangerous house.
The Library of the Dead feels like a novella that’s been expanded into a full-length novel. There’s a compelling mystery at the heart of the book, but you have to wade through a lot of padding that’s masquerading as world-building to get to it. It takes 20% of the book for the central mystery (what’s happening to the children of Edinburgh) to be introduced. Then, it takes another 30% of the book for that mystery to take center stage. Instead, most of the first half of The Library of the Dead is devoted to world-building.
We spend a lot of time with Ropa, getting to know her as a character and getting to see her ghostalking adventures. We spend even more time building out the novel’s universe. It’s set sometime in the future, in a vaguely post-apocalyptic world. Magic is an established thing, as are ghosts (and people who can talk to them). There’s even a library hidden underneath a tomb where magical scholars can study their craft. It all makes for a pretty interesting universe to set a story in, but this lack of focus hurts the narrative overall.
You’d be forgiven for thinking The Library of the Dead was actually a story about Ropa learning how to use magic. I mean, there are even multiple chapters devoted to Ropa reading books about how magic works. And I’m talking the nitty-gritty stuff about entropy and thermodynamics and whatnot. To be completely honest, I’ve never been a fan of fantasy novels feeling the need to overexplain how their magic works. I am perfectly content with just accepting that the magic works. I’d have gone along with it if The Library of the Dead was actually about Ropa learning magic. But it’s not. Not really. Her struggle to master her first spell is part of her character arc, but it’s not like this is a novel about a girl learning magic.
The book is actually about these missing kids, once it finally gets around to exploring that. Unfortunately, it takes so long to start focusing on this mystery that the mystery never really gets developed. The ending is fairly predictable, but not in a satisfying way. There aren’t a bunch of bread crumbs that are dropped throughout the novel, all building up to a climax that combines them into a satisfying conclusion. Instead, it’s just a series of events that happen, without a whole lot of investigation. You’re able to guess who’s behind everything almost as soon as you see them. And then you don’t see them again until the big reveal at the end. Unfortunately, that reveal is done in a rather hand-wavy kind of manner, as though it’s just an afterthought. Even the climax just kind of happens pretty quickly. It’s cool, and it brings Ropa’s character arc to a nice culmination. But it’s just so rushed that it doesn’t land as well as it could’ve.
And that’s down to the novel’s pacing. This is one of those books where everything is happening all at once and it never picks one thing to focus on. So, it’s really hard for any tension to start building. Getting through the first half of the novel is a bit of a slog as it’s just various scenes of exposition and world-building, one after the other. And then, when the cool stuff finally starts happening, it all happens too quickly. We briefly visit the everyThere, a sort of Purgatory that’s looked after by the Voykers, who will devour anyone who doesn’t belong. There’s a house where anyone who enters it never comes back, and Ropa ends up in the house, subject to its horror. Then there’s the titular library, which Ropa ends up a patron of, but otherwise sees little focus. The Library of the Dead is filled with so many cool ideas, but it just burns through them. It’s a case of there being too many ingredients in the soup at the same time, so no single one stands out. Any one of these ideas would’ve made for an absolutely enthralling book, but combined? It’s all just a little too much.
Now, all of that being said, I still enjoyed The Library of the Dead. Once the mystery properly gets going, it is compelling. It’s haunting and creepy and it keeps you on the edge of your seat, constantly wanting to know more. And, best of all, Ropa is an incredible main character. To be honest, I didn’t always believe she was as young as the novel insists she is—she doesn’t really sound like a fourteen-year-old. But it doesn’t matter because she feels so fully realized. A living, breathing person come to life within the novel’s pages. Huchu writes the novel in first-person, present tense and it’s a brilliant choice. You feel like you’re right there, alongside Ropa. I don’t often like present tense stories, but I loved the choice here. Honestly, for as much as I didn’t love the book’s pacing or some of its world-building, I adored Ropa. I was invested in her as a character and I wanted to know more about her. Some of her abilities are a little vaguely defined still, but I’d be willing to read more books with her as the main character.
At the end of the day, The Library of the Dead is a bit of a mixed bag. Its title is a total misnomer (the titular library barely appears in the book). The central mystery doesn’t come into focus until halfway through the novel. The pacing is all over the place. There’s a general lack of focus on any of the ideas, resulting in all of them feeling underdeveloped. At times, it feels like a book that exists solely to set up future books. But it’s still a very enjoyable read, once the story finally gets going. It’s a creepy mystery set in an intriguing world. Ropa is a fantastic character, and she’s the real hook for the book. Don’t read the book because you think the mystery sounds cool. Read it because you’re interested in following a well-developed, interesting character who can do magic and talk to ghosts. Ultimately, there’s a lot I liked and a lot I didn’t. I can’t say for certain that I’d continue reading this series, but there’s definitely an audience for it.
3.5 out of 5 wands.