Book reviews by Mobilism's Book Review team
Mar 10th, 2021, 3:35 am

TITLE: The Library of the Dead (Edinburgh Nights #1)
AUTHOR: T.L. Huchu
GENRE: Urban Fantasy, Young Adult
PUBLISHED: February 4, 2021 (UK); June 1, 2021 (US)
RATING: ★★★★


Edinburgh is an old city, and its history runs deep. Long before there was a city bearing that name, humans were living in the area around 8500 BCE, and since that time it has only grown in size and prestige. In that time, the city’s history has been mottled in shades of light and shadow – and those shadows can be very dark, if the stories are to be believed. And there are plenty of stories: Condé Nast Traveller counted Edinburgh among the 10 Most Haunted Cities in the World in 2017, and many people are convinced there is truth to that.

And like many old (and sometimes not-so-old, in the case of many American cities) and storied cities, Edinburgh makes a fine setting for an urban fantasy novel. This is what T.L. Huchu has done in his novel The Library of the Dead, first in the Edinburgh Nights series.

The Library of the Dead follows a teenager named Ropa, who works as a ghostalker: someone who speaks to ghosts and delivers their messages to the living – for a fee, of course. A girl’s got to eat and pay rent, after all, and moreover, Ropa has a family to support: her Gran, and her little sister Izwi. Like any self-employed professional, Ropa has her own rules for how she conducts her business, and most of the time, she sticks to those rules.

Except one time, when the ghost of a woman approaches her, asking Ropa to look for her missing son. At first, Ropa refuses, but after some convincing she decides to investigate. And what she turns up leads her to some of the darkest – and most interesting – secrets of Edinburgh: secrets that can both empower her, and destroy her.

The first, most notable thing about this novel is Ropa herself. The novel is told in first-person point-of-view, so it’s her voice that narrates the story – and her narration says a lot about who she is as a character. Take the following excerpt, which comes from the first chapter:
I’m taking liberties ‘cause them two are so minted it’s enough to set off my allergies. Look at the size of this place. Even have to take off my coat, it’s sweltering inside. This is one of them nineteenth-century stone cottages, so sturdy it could last another three hundred years. Built when land was aplenty, everything’s on the same level, save for the loft conversion. The McGregors are really proud of this place; soon as I got here they were yakking on about it. ‘Did you know Thomas Carlyle and his young wife Jane Welsh stayed in this exact cottage after they got married?’ I shook my head even though I’d read the wee blue plaque on the front gate. Now, I’m not one to judge, but if I got married, I’d want to honeymoon somewhere exotic, like Ireland or some such place, not flipping Juniper Green. Each to their own and all that. ‘You do know who Thomas Carlyle is, right?’ they’d said in unison. I pretended not to know and let them yak on. Must be something they do to whoever winds up on their doorstep.

I’m no buff or nothing, but I like history as much as the next lass, and so I do know Carlyle was a historian who wrote this and that back in the day. He was into heroes and great men, had something to say about how they influenced the course of human history. Always just men, never boys and girls, and seldom women. I didn’t tell the McGregors that I found his wife Jane more interesting.

This excerpt serves a dual purpose. On one hand, it showcases Ropa’s cynicism and irreverence, while also hinting at her streetwise nature. On the other hand, though, it’s clear that Ropa is very booksmart as well. Her statement that she prefers Jane Welsh to her husband Thomas Carlyle is an interesting one, since it indicates a much deeper reading of history than one might expect from the average fourteen-year-old.

This combination of street-smarts and book-smarts makes Ropa an intriguing character to read about. It’s easy to forget that she’s only fourteen, since she sounds a lot older than she actually is. Given her life, though, I suppose it’s not too surprising that she sounds older than she does; she’s had to grow up fast and take on adult responsibilities sooner than many others her age. While I’ve been privileged enough not to be forced to grow up as quickly as Ropa, I do recognise the circumstances in which she’s found herself, as there are plenty of young people who, because of necessity, are forced to grow up very quickly in order to support their families.

(It may occur to some readers to compare Ropa to a certain famous boy-wizard, especially once they’ve reached a certain point in the novel when the titular library comes into play and certain aspects of Ropa’s history have been revealed. While the comparison is to be expected, I personally think that Ropa is a far more interesting character than the aforementioned boy-wizard.)

Unsurprisingly, this background informs a lot of Ropa’s characterisation. Early in the novel Ropa’s hard-edged practicality might come off as a bit cruel to the reader, especially when she’s dealing with ghosts, but it soon becomes clear why she draws her lines where she does. Quite literally, she can’t afford to be sentimental, because sentimentality doesn’t translate to cash, and she needs cash in order to keep her grandmother and little sister fed and warm – neither of which is easy, given that the Edinburgh in which Ropa lives isn’t quite the same Edinburgh the reader might be familiar with.

This is an aspect of the novel that took me a while to piece together: the Edinburgh of this novel is one that has suffered some kind of disaster. It’s not made clear just what kind of disaster that was, though there are hints scattered throughout suggesting that it was some kind of conflict with the rest of the United Kingdom. As a result, Ropa’s Edinburgh is darker and more dystopian than the real-world city. Some elements, such as smartphones and the Internet, are familiar and still exist, and for a moment the reader might forget, and think the city in the novel is no different from the city in the real world. But then, Ropa will mention a detail like Waverley Station being underwater, and the reader is reminded that this is not the same Edinburgh as the one they might know.

All of these details are interesting, of course, but what they do best is highlight the immense disparity between those who have wealth (and therefore more power), and those who don’t have wealth (and therefore very little power). Ropa constantly comments on this throughout the novel; even the earlier excerpt showcases this in how she talks about the couple and their cottage. This disparity between the rich and the poor, exacerbated by the effects of an unknown disaster of some kind, is the novel’s primary theme. It’s clear that money is important, and while one would think that having more of it would make one more inclined to be generous; in fact, the opposite is true. Those who have more tend to cling to it more tightly, whether that “more” is money, or land, or even something nonmaterial like youth or social status.

While all of this is potentially interesting and will likely keep the reader going to the very end, the truth is that this is all rather thin on the ground. Most of the novel is dedicated to world-building, and the mystery at the heart of the novel is rather thin, though there are some interesting (though perhaps somewhat predictable) twists and turns in it. The library mentioned in the title is not even the story’s central focus, since the mystery plot occurs primarily outside of it. The main thing holding this book together is Ropa, and it’s fortunate that she is interesting to read about.

Now, it must be said that none of the things I just mentioned make this a terrible book; simply that it might not be the kind of book most readers of urban fantasy might be expecting. If one is more familiar with the Harry Dresden books for instance, or the Rivers of London novels, one might be expecting something more action-packed and denser than what one gets in The Library of the Dead. But after a while, the reader becomes accustomed, and then intrigued, by the world the author is building as seen through Ropa’s eyes, and by the people – living and dead – that she encounters along the way.

Overall, The Library of the Dead might strike veteran readers of urban fantasy as a bit light on the plot side of things, but it’s rather easy to forget about that in the presence of Ropa, who is a charismatic and fascinating character, with a wonderful narrative voice that draws the reader in. There is also the intriguing world-building since it’s quite clear that the primary aim of this novel is to set the stage for something much bigger and more intricate further down the line. Given what happens in this novel, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what other kinds of trouble Ropa gets herself into, and how she manages to get herself out of them.
Mar 10th, 2021, 3:35 am