The Library of the Unwritten

(And other novels from Hell’s Library) by A.J. Hackwith

Book covers of The Library of the Unwritten, The Archive of the Forgotten, and The God of Lost Words, next to a Halloween decoration of a stack of books with a skull on top and a bottle that says Love Potions next to it.

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.  

Find it here

Ordinary Monsters by J.M. Miro

Book cover of Ordinary Monster with a gauzy blue background.

In 1872, a pair of detectives (Alice Quicke and Mr. Coulton) are searching the world for Talents – children with extraordinary powers.  They take their foundlings back to the Cairndale Institute, a school and home for these ordinary monsters.  There, the children learn how to use and control their unique abilities, along with all the other basic subjects any child would learn. 

When the story opens, there are two specific children for whom the pair are searching.  Marlowe is a young boy born under tragic circumstances. His skin sometimes glows blue and he can heal or melt others. Unbeknownst to him initially, there is some kind of smoke monster stalking him.  Charlie Ovid, a teenage Black boy living in Mississippi, heals instantaneously, though he still feels all the pain inflicted upon him. 

The Cairndale employees soon find their charges, but what should be a relatively straightforward task of installing the boys in their new home is anything but.  There’s the smoke monster, lichts, and other dark forces seeking Cairndale’s secrets.  It’s up to Alice, Coulton, Charlie, Marlowe, and a handful of other Talents to disrupt their plans, while facing their own darkness as well.

Ordinary Monsters is a huge book, which is fitting for a tale that travels between Europe, the United States, and Japan.  Overall, I liked all the world building and didn’t notice the length much.  There was one section with Charlie that I felt didn’t quite fit though.  It seemed like it was setting up something else or that instead of simply getting lost in the streets of London, Charlie accidentally wandered out of his book and into one of Dickens’ before finding his way back.  It didn’t destroy the narrative or anything and there were still some connections to the larger story, but it just seemed a bit out of place.

One of the things that really struck me about this book was how many times things seemed impossible or hopeless, but the characters chose to keep going or keep fighting anyway.  It’s a good reminder for all of us that sometimes we just have to keep going through, no matter how pointless it seems.  And maybe we won’t “win” or change what already happened, but there’s still a chance that we can alter the future enough that something good can come from it later.

I also really liked the historical setting.  It felt very realistic, even with the magic sprinkled all around the world.  Yet again, the Pinkertons popped up, but like in The Devil’s Revolver, they’re still a bunch of bastards.  Again, realistic.  Alice is definitely my favorite character, both for her ability to get the job done and her annoyance with the restrictions society places on her.  In some ways, she reminded me of Sara Howard from The Alienist (another book I greatly enjoyed). 

From what I’ve seen, it sounds like Ordinary Monsters is the first of a series.  While I’ll check out any sequels, I thought this worked well as a stand-alone novel.  It took me a bit before I got to a point where I didn’t want to stop reading. Once that hit, I was stuck in my usual tug-of-war between wanting to hurry through to see what happens next and not wanting it to end. 

So if you’re looking for a thick book with magical kids, Victorian settings, some globe-trotting mysteries, and humor mixed with some light horror, Ordinary Monsters may be for you!

Find it here.

All The Murmuring Bones by A.G. Slatter

All the Murmuring Bones with a shell, sea monster, and dolphin around it.

I’m a big fan of authors taking old epics and myths and retelling the with an emphasis on women characters (like Circe by Madeline Miller, The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec, and A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes – I’ll be reviewing another of her books here soon!).  A.G. Slatter’s All The Murmuring Bones is a gothic fairy tale full of Celtic mythological creatures. Selkies, kelpies, wights, and more, roam the land-and sea-scape.

“One for the house, one for the church, and one for the sea.” So goes the creed for the O’Malley family.  Generations ago, the O’Malleys struck a deal with the merpeople.  The mer would protect the O’Malley family’s ships and fortunes at sea. In return, the O’Malleys would sacrifice a child each generation.  For a long time, the deal was beneficial to the family (even if not for those sacrificed) and the O’Malley clan grew in fortune, status, and power.  But the desire to keep that power in the family led to fewer births and fewer children for the sea.  Soon, ships began sinking and fortunes began shrinking. 

Enter young Miren O’Malley, the only child raised at the old family manor of Hob’s Hallow after her parents left her there with her grandparents. Determine to revive the family’s legacy, Miren’s grandmother has plans for Miren.  But Miren’s cleverness and independence is a strong match for her grandmother and she refuses to be a pawn.  There are whispers of another home where she might find some answers.  Yet the land is full of perils – as is the water. 

This was a really fun and fascinating tale.  I wasn’t that familiar with a lot of the mythology from this region, so I enjoyed learning more. Slatter did an excellent job of blending them in as part of every-day life for the people who lived there.  Ghouls are just another thing you need to avoid on the road, like a pothole.  The first born children of the O’Malley clan must be branded so the mer do not kill them.  A dead body might tell you how they died. Just the way life goes! In addition to the fairy tale we’re reading, Miren weaves in her own fairy tales and stories with which she grew up, so you get a lot of story for one book. 

I feel like this would be even better to read in the fall, curled up under a blanket, listening to the wind make skeletal branches dance outside your window, casting shadows upon your walls and tapping eerily on the panes. But regardless of when you decide to read it, I’m sure you’ll enjoy All the Murmuring Bones!

Find it online:

All the Murmuring Bones

Fragile Things

by Neil Gaiman

The book Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman surrounded by green leaves and pink and white flowers.

I rarely read short stories, but Fragile Things reminded me why I should.  This collection of thirty-one short stories and poems by Neil Gaiman was a treasure trove of tales, some of which I wished were full novels (which one did became). Others were perfectly designed to be just a glimpse of a secret world, hidden just under the reality we think we know.

This also coincided with me getting to see Neil Gaiman perform (read? speak? I’m not quite sure what the proper descriptor is) on tour last week.  It was an amazing experience and if you ever get the chance to see him live, I strongly urge you to take it. Enjoying a pre-show dinner, my friend and I happened to be sitting next to a pair of sisters who were also going to attend the show. When they asked if I could take their picture, I not only said yes, but pulled my copy of Fragile Things from my purse so they could use it as a prop. It pays to always have a book in your bag!

I’d seen Neil once before, when Norse Mythology came out.  I wasn’t sure what to expect this time, since there wasn’t a specific new book or project to promote.  But that didn’t matter.  He read a short story and some poems of his, he answered questions the audience wrote on index cards before the show, and talked about writing and reading and the power of stories.  Both times that I’ve heard him speak, I’ve come away wanting to do nothing more than grab a pen and paper and start writing.  What I would write, I have no idea.  But ideas are bouncing around and maybe someday they’ll find their way onto a page.

In the meantime, though, a few thoughts on Fragile Things.  I won’t go over each individual entry, but one of the things I enjoyed was the introduction, where Neil explained the genesis of each story and includes a bonus story within those descriptions.  The introduction’s an interesting insight into ideas incarnating into something tangible. 

I was then hooked right off the bat by “A Study in Emerald”, a Sherlock Holmes story set in an H.P. Lovecraftian world.  (This was one of the stories that I wished could be a full novel.) Even though I’ve technically never read either a Sherlock Holmes or H.P. Lovecraft novel, I really enjoyed both. (I have seen enough Star Trek episodes with Data playing Sherlock Holmes on the Holodeck, so that counts, right?)

Next, as someone who read The Chronicles of Narnia over and over as a kid, I really appreciated “The Problem of Susan.” Anyone who feels like Susan was mistreated by Lewis can find some characters here who share that righteous indignation. There are also several poems sprinkled throughout this collection, which again made me want to break out some of my old notebooks and start trying to write again.

I found Neil through Tori Amos and her numerous references to him in many of her songs.  By delightful quirk of fate or intentional ordering of the universe, she performed at the same theater I saw Neil at just a few days later, which I also attended.  (And I ended up sitting in almost the exact same seats just on opposite sides of the theater for both.) It was amazing and wonderful and magical to be able to bask in the presence of two of my favorite creators in such close proximity.  Fragile Things also served as a bridge, as two of the entries were character sketches he wrote for two of Tori’s albums – Strange Little Girls and Scarlet’s Walk.  You don’t need to know the albums or be fans of Tori to get them, but as someone who did obsessively go through the liner notes and has listened to the albums numerous times, it was a satisfying bonus. 

I could go on and on, talking about the what happened to Miss Finch, or the short sequel to American Gods that concludes this collection. But suffice it to say that this was a superb group of stories. If you like short story collections, pick this up.  If you like Neil, pick this up.  If you’ve never read anything by Neil, or if you think you don’t like short stories, pick this up.  Even if you hit a tale you don’t particularly like, you’ll be on to the next and visiting a whole new world. The only downside is having to leave them.

**Content warning: the story “Keepsakes and Treasures” deals with the sexual abuse and rape of the narrator’s mother and child sex abuse, within the first four or five pages. The main characters of Mr. Alice and Mr. Smith return in the final story, but if you need to skip this one, it won’t destroy your understanding of the last one.

Find it online:

Fragile Things

Black Sun and Fevered Star

by Rebecca Roanhorse, the first two books of the Between Earth and Sky series

Book covers of Black Sun and Fevered Star by Rebecca Roanhorse with shadows of birds in the background.

I love it when fantasy stories take place somewhere other than a medieval England/Europe setting.  Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate Tolkien and his influence and the many streams that branched off from there.  But whether it’s N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood duology (ancient Egypt), S. A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy (Middle East/North Africa), or Alina Boyden’s Stealing Thunder (India, and with a trans heroine), creating fantasy worlds drawn from different societies, different geographies, different cultures, and different time periods is so much fun. (And there are so many more I could talk about, but then we’ll never get to the actual review.) 

Rebecca Roanhorse’s Between Earth and Sky series (Black Sun and the recently released Fevered Star) takes Mesoamerican/borderland societies/settings (with some Polynesian sailing influences as well) as her steppingstone in a story about a corrupt political structure, religious zealotry, magic, superstitions, and survival.

Black Sun follows four characters, bouncing between their perspectives: Serapio, destined to be the Crow god reborn and avenge his people, the Carrion Crow; Captain Xiala, a Teek sailor who we meet in jail after her night of drinking and seducing, hired to transport Serapio to the city of Tova; Naranpa, the Sun Priest, head of the Watchers who rule Tova and keep the peace, determined to root out corruption and guide the Watchers back to their original purpose; and Okoa, son of the matron of the Carrion Crow, trained as a warrior in a society that has forsworn war.

As we soon learn, the convergence approaches, aligned with a solar eclipse on the winter solstice.  Prophecy hints that when the sun is at its weakest, the Crow god will destroy it.  And as the planets move into position, so too do our characters converge on Tova.

I can’t talk too much about the plot for Fevered Star without giving away major plot points for Black Sun, so suffice it to say that Roanhouse delivers a solid sequel that gives us more insight into the world she created.  There’s the usual second book issue of feeling like it was really setting up even bigger things while leaving them for the next installment.  It definitely left me impatient for the next book.  Since this was just released a month ago, however, I’m going to have to wait. But it’s clear the gods aren’t done yet with the people of Meridian and the people have their own plans as well.

Overall, I enjoyed both books.  I really liked the world that’s created and most of the characters.  There are assassin priests, non-binary and queer characters, and a nice dose of various kinds of magic.  Serapio and Xiala are both fascinating and I loved reading their chapters.  I sympathized with Naranpa, but found Okoa’s chapters a bit of a weak link.  Thankfully, Serapio and Xiala get a lot of page time in Black Sun, though not as much in Fevered Star.  When you read Black Sun, by the way, pay attention to the dates at the beginning of each chapter – there’s a lot of jumping around, timewise.  Fevered Star is more straight-forward, chronologically speaking, and gives us some additional character voices. 

There’s a line from a Tori Amos song (“Bliss”) that asks “what it means to be/made of you but not enough of you” that kept floating back into my head as I read.  There is a theme of exploring culture and blood while being an outsider, raised away from your family or your people.  Fevered Star in particular delves into what happens when a child who never had a chance to be part of their community can finally return as an adult, with mostly only second-hand knowledge about their heritage. 

There’s a hint of Roanhorse’s own background in that, but it also ties in to a much longer and darker history in the United States and Canada of white governments stealing indigenous children, shipping them off to boarding schools, and quite literally trying to beat their culture and language out of them, not only physically separating them from their families, but linguistically and culturally as well.  (Some ties to themes from Almanac of the Dead fit in here as well.) It’s deftly handled and not a blunt object with which you’re hit on the head, but if you know, it’s a connection that you can glimpse and ponder.  Or you can focus on a fascinating fantasy world sailing seas, climbing cliffs, and watching the sun go black, wondering what comes next. Or both!  Regardless, it’s a great way to spend your time. 

When I bought Fevered Star, I debated whether I should jump right into it or if I should re-read Black Sun first.  I ended up going back to the beginning and I’m glad I did.  I liked being able to revisit the world and I especially liked being able to move straight into the next book when it ended.  (It’s so hard reading series as they come out because I hate waiting for the next one, but I also like knowing that there’s still going to be more.  Also, it’s better for the author if we’re reading stuff as it comes out, since it reassures publishers that it’s worth sticking with!) So do yourself a favor and make sure you have Fevered Star on hand as you approach the end of Black Sun! And then when the next book comes out, we can do it all again.     

Find them online:

Black Sun

Fevered Star