(And other novels from Hell’s Library) by A.J. Hackwith
I love novels about books and reading, so The Library of the Unwritten grabbed my attention while I wandered through the bookstore. When I read the subtitle “A novel from Hell’s Library,” my excitement grew, and when I read the back of the book, I was hooked. The premise is there is a library, located in Hell, but not a part of Hell, filled with humanity’s unwritten books. Every story started but never finished, each idea mulled but never realized, appears in the leather-bound books of the Library of the Unwritten.
Every library needs a librarian, of course, and the current librarian is a condemned soul named Claire, who died roughly thirty years prior and found herself an apprentice to the former Librarian. After he disappeared, she took the mantel of Librarian, and with her assistant, a Muse named Brevity, Claire makes sure the Library remains safe from the demons surrounding it and perhaps more importantly, that the books remain asleep.
For the unwritten desperately want their stories told. Occasionally, a book will manifest as a character and try to make its way back to Earth and its author. It’s the librarian’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen. There are a few exceptions: the Damsel Wing is a fun addition. The damsels originated as ladies whose only purpose in their (unfinished) story was to serve as the hero’s prize. Fed up with their lack of characterization and opportunity to grow within their story, and with no desire to meet the hacks who tried to write them, the Librarians allow them to live outside their books in their own section of the Library.
But overall, a character must return to its book. As our story opens, a hero-type character made a break from the Library and is back among the living. Claire, Brevity, and Leto, a fairly new demon, are on the hunt. Unbeknownst to them, a fallen angel named Ramiel is on a mission from Heaven, also hunting for pages from a book.
As much as I would love to go into detail about all these characters and their adventures, I want you to be able to experience it all for yourself. This is a fantastic world and I love how Hackwith pulls it all together. Claire & Co. travel to other realms, including Valhalla, that have their own wings of the Library. All the way through, circumstances force them to examine who they are and who they want to become. When Library of the Unwritten ended, I hated to say goodbye to those characters and that world.
Thankfully, there are two more books: The Archive of the Forgotten and The God of Lost Words. I won’t say much about them, since I don’t want to spoil anything that happens in the first book. Both are great stories and continue to expand the realms and the characters’ development.
The Archive of the Forgotten has a lot of story lines dealing with the immediate fallout from the previous book. It’s well done, but it has a thing that I struggle with a lot in stories – the separation of characters. It makes sense – everyone needs growth and sometimes our traumas isolate us from those we care about and who care about us. But it can be hard to watch (or read). The God of the Lost, meanwhile, left me in tears by the end, which surprised me. It was such a beautiful ode to reading, writing, and creating that I found myself overwhelmed and filled with love.
Hackwith’s conception of the afterlife is fascinating. Parts of it reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, shows like Supernatural, and the movie Constantine. But those are just some of the ingredients that bring it all together. Hackwith creates a fascinating world with its own philosophies and theologies. As mention earlier, there are various realms reflecting other belief systems. Even Christianity’s Heaven and Hell exist, with some changes. Hell in this version is only for those who condemn themselves to it. For only a second, I thought that wouldn’t be a terrible system, thinking of how few people would want to be in Hell. Then I realized that such a concept would mean a Heaven filled with the narcissistic egoists who believe they are flawless and continually the victim, while those who struggled to do the right thing would hold themselves to an impossible standard and thus condemn themselves unjustly for eternity.
But Heaven poses a dilemma I’ve noticed in a lot of modern stories. If we include angels and demons, Heaven and Hell, in a story, there’s the problem of God. It seems easy for us to accept the idea of Satan to be real and active in human affairs; devils walking among us would explain so much. But a force of omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent good? If such a god exists, why wouldn’t they help us? If angels are around, why don’t they ever seem to be winning? Instead of Heaven being paradise, we seem better able to imagine it as, at best, a sterile neutrality, burdened with bureaucracy and an absent Deity.
Sure, it makes sense that we can’t have such an all-powerful being around in our art, able to end all conflict in the blink of an eye – there isn’t much of a story there. But when we look at earlier times, there didn’t seem to be a problem with imagining such divinity and still having the world be a fairly miserable place.
Has our sense of justice and fairness changed? If we create God in our image, have we reached a point where we realize that such a thing could not exist and the world continue as it does? Heaven as a bureaucracy – something started with reasons and order and processes for a defined purpose, but now just continuing via inertia, without the spark or soul to give it true life or meaning. Perhaps, however, the right soul could make the needed changes.
These were just some of the thoughts Library of the Unwritten and the rest of Hell’s Library’s novels inspired. At the end, it once again made me so incredibly grateful for all the authors out there, all the readers, and all the libraries and librarians, wherever they may be.