“The Invisible Library” by Genevieve Cogman (2015)

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“Irene passed the mop across the stone floor in smooth, careful strokes, idly admiring the gleam of wet flagstones in the lantern-light.”

With a name like Genevieve Cogman, it feels almost inevitable that she penned a novel with a steampunk flavour. Someone, I forget who, had suggested this series to me a long time ago under the logic that my love of books would mean I would adore a story set in an enormous magical library. Indeed, I thought I would adore it too. Here’s the premise.

Irene works for the Library, an enormous book repository held in the space between worlds. She and her fellow Librarians are tasked with entering different universes to seek out works of fiction that are unique, dangerous or interesting. Freshly back from a school of magic, she is immediately assigned a visit to a steampunk universe where there’s a book of Grimm’s fairy tales unlike any other. Her boss also asks her to take along Kai, a new recruit with a needling attitude and more secrets that you can shake a brolly at.

In this alternate world, Irene and Kai soon find that the mission is not going to be an easy one. Chaos has infected this universe in a big way, and there seem to be a lot of people after the book. Its owner, a vampire called Lord Wyndham, has just been murdered and the killer is still at large. Irene and Kai are thrown into a mess of danger and secret societies, with magical creatures, cyborg alligators and Britain’s finest detective after them. Things go from bad to worse when Irene is locked out of the Library, her contact is found dead, and something far more dangerous than she could ever have envisioned is stalking the streets of London.

I do adore the concept – alternate universes with varying levels of technology and magic being visited by beings from beyond space and time to recover priceless works of fiction? What’s not to love? I’m working on something curiously similar myself. However, it all seemed to become far too complicated. In just over three hundred pages we are introduced to this magical Library, the Language while allows magic to occur, Kai’s backstory, the interlocking universes, vampires, werewolves, steampunk technology (including the obligatory dose of zeppelins), the on-going battle between the dragons and the Fae, and a knotty alternate history where Liechtenstein is considered a world power. There are so many aspects here that they begin to trip over themselves. Little is ever fully explained, characters never quite manage to develop three dimensions – often not even two – and there feels a desperation to throw as many things as possible at it.

Cogman also seems terrified that a reader might miss any any of the subtext in her story, and thus we are frequently treated to explanations as to what the true meanings are behind certain lines and gestures. While I get that sometimes subtext can be missed, here it feels almost insulting in its regularity, as if the readers would be too stupid to be able to understand. I did begin to wonder if the books are aimed at a young adult audience, but I can find nothing suggesting that to be the case. Perhaps it’s in the subtext, and it was the one time she didn’t bother telling us?

Since it’s the first in a series, I give it the benefit of the doubt. A lot has to be established in a first novel – the first Harry Potter book is, of course, tonally very different to the others because we’re being introduced to the world for the first time – but it all feels a little too rushed, with a desperation to throw in the Big Bad and explain away the big secrets before we’ve even really had a chance to begin to care about them. There are some interesting scenes, and one or two genuinely interesting characters, but they get lost among the ephemera.

It’s a shame, really, and it falls down where many books have fallen down before – a great premise, with poor execution.

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“The Clockwork Man” by William Jablonsky (2010)

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clockwork“Dear Professor Wellesley, I greatly enjoyed your recent visit from Oxford, and thank you immensely for the fine leather-bound tome in which I now write these lines.”

William Jablonsky’s novel jumped out at me one day while I was in the Science Fiction & Fantasy section of Brighton’s branch of Waterstone’s. Not for having a uniquely wonderful cover (handsome though it is) or being on sale, but for the small word ‘steampunk’ printed at the top of the spine.

Well, that and, how awesome a surname is Jablonsky?

I’ve had a passing interest in steampunk for a while, although mostly for the aesthetic side of the genre and I’ve enjoyed browsing the Internet for fashions, inventions and people that would fill a steampunk world. Given this fondness, and the fact that I’m working on something set in an alternate steampunk universe, I thought I better dive in.

The Clockwork Man is the story of automaton Ernst who is built by world-renowned clockmaker Karl Gruber (the Master) at the tail end of the nineteenth century. Although he is mechanical throughout, there is far more to him than just cogs and nickel-plating. Not only does he have a suede skin, a penchant for nice suits and is able to lift incredibly heavy weights, he is also capable of learning, having independent thoughts, and understanding people.

Ernst is very close to Herr Gruber’s daughter, Giselle, a self-taught astronomer who is something of a genius herself. Ernst is very protective over her (although he is also protective of the Master and his son, Jakob). However, something is occurring in Ernst’s wiring that seems unlikely to have been intentional, and his feelings towards Giselle may be more than he can deal with.

After a tragic incident one December, Giselle dies and Ernst, unable to forgive himself, lets himself wind down in a sort of suicide, wishing to be left to rust and break. However, this doesn’t go exactly to plan when he is wound up again and finds himself in a deeply changed world over one hundred years later, with only an unstable homeless man for company. He begins to discover the events that transpired while he has been “asleep” and with now no opportunity to make his way home, must make a new life for himself.

Featuring cameos from, among others, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, seems to cement this book in our world, but it is clearly slightly different, as technology of this level has still yet to be invented. Although the book lists itself as steampunk, the term “clockpunk” is actually far more accurate, as Ernst is powered by clockwork rather than steam, and he is the only real change between his timeline and ours. This is not a complaint, as I adore clockwork things – all those delicate cogs and wheels – and I found Ernst to be an interesting character.

It’s a great novel for contemplating the nature of the soul and what defines something as being “alive”, as while Ernst is definitely manufactured, he is far more than a machine. Interesting and thought-provoking.