Book Review: The Library at Mount Char, Scott Hawkins (2015)

June 17th, 2015 8:59 am by Kelly Garbato

How do I love thee? Let me catalog the ways.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for rape and other forms of violence.)

I’m going to break with my usual review format and skip the plot summary altogether. The synopsis provided by the publisher does a lovely job summarizing the story – and without dropping any spoilers, which is more than I can trust myself to do. (I’M SO WEAK, YOU GUYS.) Instead, here are twelve things I love and adore and cherish about The Library at Mount Char, which is everything I wanted and more. One for each catalog, natch.

1. Carolyn, who is best described as the love child of Beatrix Kiddo and Amy Elliott Dunne.

To say that Carolyn is a BAMF is an understatement. She kicks major ass, sure – but she’s also a wonderfully intelligent, complex, conflicted character. There’s so much more to her than meets the naked eye; more than even she herself seems to realize at times. Every time Hawkins pulls back a layer – through flashbacks and spell-induced memories – I’m surprised at what lies beneath. She’s the kind of anti-hero that I so badly want to root for, long after she’s lost herself and fucking up epically. Carolyn does all the wrong things for all the right reasons.

Also, you’ve got to a love a thirty-something-year-old woman who can rock a pair of legwarmers.

2. The Library, which is a lot like the Tardis in that it’s BIGGER ON THE INSIDE. But for different reasons.

The house at 222 Garrison Drive – located in the Garrison Oaks subdivision right off of Highway 78 – is, like all the houses in that neighborhood, nondescript. Unmemorable. Literally: Thanks to Father’s machinations, you could drive by it “four times a day every day for a thousand years and still not remember it.”

Populated by zombies – ghosts of the former residents, bombed into oblivion by the U.S. government and reanimated (but not resurrected – the distinction is as significant as it is fine) by Adam Black, aka Father – Garrison Oaks looks normal. Well, as long as you don’t look too hard. And the zombies – one of many defense systems established by Father – ensure that outsiders don’t linger. And if they don’t get the job done, there’s always Thane and his pack of canine sentinels.

Up on the hill sits a small brick house that isn’t really a house, but a passage to the Library. The Library exists in another universe and isn’t subject to our own natural laws; which is, perhaps, why the apex of this pyramid (two miles long on each side) brushes the very heavens. The main jade floor is lined with bookshelves – and so are the walls, even those overhead.

Lining the shelves?

3. The twelve catalogs.

During his approximately sixty-thousand years of existence, Father accumulated a vast store of knowledge. Organized into twelve distinct catalogs, it is his work – meticulously hand-written, bound into color-coded leather volumes, and then organized with precision (there is no such thing as a misshelved book!) – that fills the Library.

On Adoption Day, the twelve surviving children of Garrison Oaks became Father’s apprentices, each assigned a catalog to study – and forbidden to discuss the contents of their catalogs with the others. (Presumably because Father did not want any one child to become more powerful than he.)

The white catalog – medicine – came first, for Father could not live to discover the rest without first learning how to extend his life – and eventually achieving immortality. Jennifer is assigned to study the white folio, which includes the art of reanimation and resurrection – something she becomes quite skilled at, for Father kills a lot of people. Including his pupils.

The second catalog is war and belongs to David, Father’s favorite. David is…something else, and we’ll return to him later.

After this the order (and sometimes even nature) of the catalogs becomes murky; Hawkins only places medicine and war in chronological order. Given the sheer number of characters to start, plus their areas of study, I had such trouble keeping track that I made a chart! Sadly, by story’s end, it wasn’t complete. (Frowny face.) I can only hope the finished book will fill in the blanks, maybe with a shiny, scholarly looking graphic or two.

Here’s what I came up with:

1. Jennifer – medicine, healing, reanimation/resurrection (white)
2. David – war (red)
3. Carolyn – languages (green)
4. Michael – animals
5. Peter – math, engineering (and cooking?) (violet)
6. Margaret – death
7. Alicia – the future
8. Rachel – possible futures
9. Jacob
10. Richard
11. Emily
12. Lisa

Bummer, right? I want to know ALL THE CATALOGS! Still, what we learn is pretty awesome. As an animal person, I’m partial to Michael’s catalog, but they’re all pretty amazing and nuanced and unexpectedly vast, with a little bit of overlap here and there (thus complicating Father’s edict against studying outside of your own catalog).

For example, David’s studies primarily involve weaponry and military tactics, however, war also has its own language. So who owns that, David or Carolyn? (A: David.) On the other hand, the crossover between Carolyn and Michael’s studies in the area of nonhuman languages seems to be less taboo; both students are allowed to communicate with animals.

I especially love Carolyn’s description of her studies, which highlights the whimsy inherent in the catalogs: “She understood all languages – past and present, human and beast, real and imagined. She could speak most of them as well, though some required special equipment. How many in all? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? And how long to learn them? Even these days, it still took her most of a week to master a new one.” (Pro tip: Time passes differently inside the Library.) Carolyn can roar with the lions and understand the poetry of storms. She knows “every word that had ever been spoken.” Lovely, don’t you think?

4. THE ANIMALS.

From Father’s sentinels to the ancient tiger god Nobununga, this is a story rich with nonhuman characters. Animals are portrayed as intelligent, sentient beings, possessing their own languages and religions. Death isn’t the end; just like humans, they have their own versions of the afterlife (verified through Margaret’s journeys).

Granted, they aren’t always treated with respect and compassion (after all, there can only be one “Luckiest Chicken in the World”); for instance, even as Michael lives with animals great (read: godly) and small, returning occasionally to bestow his knowledge on the Library, animals are routinely consumed within its borders. Sometimes, as with Isha and Asha the red deers (sob!), this represents an act of murder and betrayal, meant to teach one of Father’s children a lesson. But. (But, but, but.) Humans are treated much the same way. This is a violent, bloody, gruesome story, for humans and nonhumans, mortal and gods alike.

5. Dresden and Naga FTW.

When we first meet Dresden, he’s dreaming of home – of freedom. He and his daughter, Naga, were kidnapped from the plains of Africa in order serve as an exhibit in some d-bag rapper’s backyard zoo. Trapped in a pit – with high walls that slope inward, to prevent jumping and climbing – he and Naga are destined to die alone, under strange stars, tormented by the smells of humans they can neither see nor touch.

That is, until Michael, Carolyn, and David offer them a way out: help us reclaim the Library, and liberation and vengeance are yours. In what’s easily one of my favorite scenes in the book, Carolyn describes to Dresden’s captor – and soon-to-be-dinner – how lions can either ease their victim’s suffering – or multiply it:

“But there is another way of killing. This is done when the lion hunts out of hate, rather than hunger. For such times the big cats have a touch that enhances suffering rather than relieves it. Under this touch the prey’s spirit is bound to the plane of anguish. The pain is like drowning. Often the damage to their spirit is such that there is not enough left of them to return to the forgotten lands. Those killed in this way are ruined forever.” […] “The lion wishes me to inform you that this is how you will die.”

(Emphasis mine because this the point at which I fell head over heels for The Library at Mount Char. Revenge for ALL the captive animals!)

This isn’t the last we see of Dresden and Naga; later scenes had me laughing, crying, and screaming at my Kindle.

6. Michael, who gives me all the feels.

“I was with…with…the small things. Father said. Father said to study the ways of the humble and the small.”

‘Nuff said.

7. David and Margaret, sitting in a tree.

With his Israeli flak jacket, red tie, helmet of dried blood, and crusty purple tutu, David strikes quite an image. (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective meets Leatherface, maybe?) But he wasn’t always a slave to war: in childhood, he was friendly, gregarious, and compassionate; Michael’s friend and protector. Yet after Father roasted him to death in the giant bull, David was never the same; he stopped laughing and joking and slowly transformed into the Library bully (second only to Father, of course).

David does some truly disturbing things – including to his own “siblings” – but it’s important to remember that he is (as they all are) what Father made him: a monster.

Which brings us to Margaret, who Father kills (and Jennifer resurrects) so often that they’ve long since lost track: “The first time he snuck up behind her with an ax at dinner, startling everyone, not least Margaret herself. After that it was gunshots, poison, hanging, whatever. Sometimes it was a surprise, sometimes not. Another time Father pierced her heart with a stiletto, but only after telling her what he would do, setting the knife before her on a silver tray, and letting her contemplate it for three full days and nights.”

After twenty-five years of this, Margaret is understandably mad. But the toll isn’t just mental; physically, she resembles a walking corpse, pale and dirty and smelly and bloated, sometimes with maggots crawling in her hair.

What better match, then, than the students – and products – of war and death? As cruel as he may be, David has a soft spot for Margaret. But not too soft: No one hurts Margaret but him. Usually at her suggestion. The marriage of sex and violence is rather discomforting – but then again, I think it’s meant to be.

Their relationship is unspeakably dysfunctional; as fascinating as it is repellent. Yet, in it I also see a glimmer of hope: Father may have destroyed David and Margaret (and all the rest), but even he couldn’t completely snuff out their need for companionship, understanding, and contact. Their humanity.

8. The literary comparisons.

Normally I roll my eyes at breathy comparisons to well-known authors and their works – either the comparison is weak, misplaced, or just so much hype. But “Neil Gaiman meets Joe Hill”? Totally spot on.

Most immediately, Father conjures up images of Charles Manx – and the Library, Christmasland. While the comparison’s not entirely perfect – Father’s children can pass in and out of different worlds, rather than being confined to just one; and they do age, however slowly; plus, Father’s a god, so there’s that – yet The Library at Mount Char does feel vaguely reminiscent of NOS4A2, especially in its mix of humor and horror. (Oh, the horror!)

And as for Neil Gaiman, The Library at Mount Char also feels a bit like American Gods and Anansi Boys, with its array of gods, in all their dark humor, shifting alliances, back-stabbing, and disdain for the petty problems of mortals (you know, like famine, poverty, and rioting).

Between the time travel, the multiverses, the Library that’s bigger on the inside, and the talking squid-men (!), there also exist shades of Doctor Who. A much darker and more sinister Doctor Who, granted: The Master ain’t got nothing on Father.

9. The ’80s fashion and decor.

Most glaringly and gloriously evident when Carolyn entreats her siblings to “pass as Americans.”

10. The art of the long con.

While Hawkins drops hints fairly early on that one of the children is behind Father’s disappearance – or at least knows more than he or she is letting on – there are still enough plot twists to keep readers on their toes. And the foreshadowing? It’s a thing of beauty. But the long cons take the cake; cons, plural, because there’s more than one con artist creeping through the stacks at the Library. The writers of Lost would be jealous. (The endings don’t even compare.)

11. The title, the significance of which doesn’t present itself until the very end. Perfection.

If you’re clever, you may be able to figure it out before the big reveal. But not long before.

12. This book is bonkers.

Seriously, in case I wasn’t already abundantly clear. I believe the exactly word I used in my Goodreads update was “bananamazaballs.” If Jennifer Goines rewrote the Bible, it would look a lot like The Library at Mount Char.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Margaret is described as Polynesian; the twins, Peter and Richard, are black. Lisa’s last name is Garza, though I don’t recall seeing a physical description of her (she’s a very minor character). There are several other minor characters of color, some named, others not.

As the kids get older, they experiment sexually with one another; some of the relationships are same-sex, though Hawkins doesn’t elaborate much on this. In the case of David, these interactions aren’t always consensual. You could even argue that none of David’s relationships are consensual, since he’s Father’s favorite and the Library dictator-in-training; threats of retaliation always lie just under the surface.

Many of the kids/adults suffer from PTSD, drug addiction, and depression as a result of Father’s “mentoring.” Several have attempted suicide at least once, only to be resurrected by Father or Jennifer.

Animal-friendly elements: Yes. The nonhumans who inhabit this world – gods and mortals alike – are portrayed as sentient, intelligent, emotional creatures, who posses their own languages and religions. Father, Michael, and Carolyn are all capable of speaking with various species in their own languages.

Dresden and Naga are a father-daughter pair of lions who were drugged, kidnapped from their home on the African plains, and imprisoned in a backyard zoo in Connecticut. David, Carolyn, and Michael offer to free Dresden and Naga and let them have their vengeance on their captor in exchange for their help gaining admittance to the Library. Dresden ultimately sacrifices his life for that of his daughter; touched, Steve promises to save Naga’s life in turn, and the two ultimately come to love and respect one another.

When a young Carolyn is sent to study with the red deers, she becomes an adopted member of Isha and Asha’s family. Carolyn fails one of Father’s tests, and so David murders the mother and her fawn on Father’s orders, thus planting the seed for Carolyn’s revenge some twenty-odd years later.

See my review for more.

 

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