Book reviews by Mobilism's Book Review team
Apr 22nd, 2020, 6:09 pm

Title: The Library at Mount Char
Author: Scott Hawkins
Published: 2015
Genre: Fiction, Fantasy
Rating: ★★★

Purchase: Amazon
Mobilism: Mobilism

O, it is excellent/To have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous/To use it like a giant.
—William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, Act 2, Scene 2

With The Library at Mount Char, author Scott Hawkins writes a genre-bending novel that lies well outside the usual parameters of traditional fantasy by flirting with "new weird" aesthetics but without landing squarely on such territory like China Miéville, for example. The story is strange and almost cosmologically mythopoeic in the glimpses of world-building sprinkled throughout, and where, an occasional Lovecraftian flavour notwithstanding, the cosmology/myth is typically not borrowed from real-world contexts or existing literary traditions. It's a narrative that's also unusually cruel in both tone and circumstance, albeit written in such a way as to distance the reader from those elements, likely because the scale with which it deals ends up dwarfing mere human concerns. This isn't unintentional, but how successful Hawkins is in utilising this characteristic to put forward his point must be judged individually. The scale applies not just to the timeline but also to the psychological make-ups, intentions and attitudes of many characters, and their perceptions of and roles in the very fabric of reality.

The novel gives the impression of a tightly-plotted story at first glance, but where the coming together of threads begin to reveal an artifice in the placement of many elements, some successful, others less so. It's also one of those narratives where the background glances and references to weirdly esoteric ages, creatures and powers end up being, in many cases, more fascinating than the immediate plot. The story is written as a mystery, and this mode seems to be utilised more to set the ground for world-building rather than for the mystery itself. There are attempts at misdirection, but the mystery is almost a foregone conclusion—that artifice ex machina begins to grate, where certain pieces of the puzzle seem to be placed all too easily for a convenient resolution, and in some cases told after the fact. Each reader's mileage will vary here, both with the success in resolving plot threads, and also with the time needed before certain elements set up as initial conditions start to connect.

Hawkins tells a story of superhuman struggles, karmic consequences and cruel torture, and where the struggle toward victory might elicit fascination but perhaps not the expected satisfaction. It succeeds most in creating a unique myth with cosmic forces and powers that transcend frameworks both scientific and supernatural, and where the struggle for supremacy of known reality through knowledge is forged in a crucible of tightly controlled vengeance, partly borne of hate and partly of desperation. It's telling that the most valuable characteristic throughout the story is guile—that feature most necessary in the Machiavellian pursuit of power, but the fullest use of which renders one inhuman without any counterbalance tethered to gentler traits that might overlap with human concerns. This is a tale where power creates in its own image, the successful result of which demands inhuman sacrifices, where there is no reprieve from a merciful authority above as there was to halt Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. But this is also a story of larger-than-life characters, both mundane and not, human and other, and where the portrait of at least one lends itself well to humorous scenes and whose perspective also provides, in part, the repercussions of events on the human level of experience and understanding.

Only a few characters are properly sketched out despite a large, potentially interesting cast. Dialogue also underwhelms on certain occasions with its decided tone of juvenile pique specifically in relation to the protagonist—cue the teenage eye rolls and an almost air-headed tone to some responses—a consequence of stunted emotional growth despite the advantages of age and knowledge. If such an effect is intentional by Hawkins, then it doesn't come across as fluid. What does comes across well to the reader is an unsettling atmosphere that can feel alien and wrong, and this is more keenly felt in various interludes providing glimpses into the past rather than the contemporary-set story. There is a pervading sense of horror at situations that can be very affecting, e.g. scenes of educational and disciplinary measures on children that read like the most grotesque torture from some fabled, atavistic day of auld lang syne, but this potential for horror is sometimes undermined by a shift from the very understandable initial response of shock by on-looking characters to a blasé frame of mind with respect to such scenarios. The intention seems to be to normalise such cruelty, psychopathy and the uncanny, to pass it off insouciantly and so showcase the disconnect between extraordinary circumstances and mere earthly concerns. But this shift in perception doesn't always ring true, especially when it occurs in characters of the mundane variety.

The primary complaint is that some overly expedient elements in an otherwise convoluted plot are rendered rather unconvincing with prolonged scrutiny, and this vitiates some of the intended effect from an early climax. And yet, there is still a freshness in Hawkins' telling that keeps the pages turning and carries the story from start to finish, irrespective of final judgement at novel's end. Some criticisms that come with hindsight are partly balanced by the novel's imagination and novelty value, much of which finds expression through an otherworldly strangeness with which Hawkins imbues the story—in the construction of a unique cosmological framework including the fascinating hints of a mythic history beyond the ken of man, and the overarching theme in the story of a new order supplanting the old. But this is a twisted version of that change in regime—of a Zeus exulting in the annihilation of Kronos, but where such annihilation is subverted and paradoxically transformed into a potential for unparalleled freedom and agency. These are the elements that truly stick to mind, even if it requires a substantial suspension of disbelief with respect to certain plot constituents and character traits to achieve such a result. This is by no means a perfect novel, but neither does that mean it isn't memorable.
Apr 22nd, 2020, 6:09 pm