Book Review: The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

So, I’ve gotten pretty good at picking books to read these days so that I have a minimal number of bad reading experiences, which is great, and it’s a skill I’m happy to have finally mastered as I approach my mid-30s. The downside of this skill, however, is that I often feel like about every other book that I read is a new favorite, or my favorite book of [genre], or at least my favorite book of the current year, or the last six months or last five years, or whatever. You get the idea. The point is, eventually that “favorite” distinction starts to lose all meaning, especially since I seldom reread anything anymore. But still, sometimes I really mean it.

This time, I really, really mean it.

The Library at Mount Char is certainly my favorite book that I’ve read this summer, perhaps my favorite this year so far. It’s not the best book I’ve read lately, but it’s definitely the most fun I’ve had reading in a good while. Absolutely enough fun to earn itself a place on the running list of “favorites” I keep in my head.

I knew straight away that I would love this book because I was moved to giggles in the first paragraph, which introduces us to a protagonist who only gets more weird and wonderful as you continue reading. I don’t know if The Library at Mount Char will last as one of my favorites, but its heroine, Carolyn, definitely makes my list of all-time favorite female characters.

We first meet Carolyn covered in blood and walking barefoot down a highway. She’s just killed a man, but she’s actually thinking about tacos. I fell in love with her immediately.

We soon learn that Carolyn is one of twelve “librarians” who started off as orphaned children adopted by a mysterious “Father” and taken to live in a library. Father isn’t a god, exactly, but he’s something of an all-powerful and ancient wizard kind of guy. Each of the twelve adopted siblings has been assigned a catalog–one portion of Father’s incredibly vast body of knowledge–that they alone are responsible for, and to study from another’s catalog brings a heavy punishment. Carolyn’s catalog is languages. Michael’s is animals. David’s is war. Jennifer’s is healing. Margaret’s is death. Other siblings’ roles are less obvious or well-defined, but it’s obvious that, all together, the breadth of their studies is pretty comprehensive. The story begins with Father’s disappearance and the librarians scrambling to figure out what has happened.

Although there are a couple of other important point of view characters–Erwin and Steve–Carolyn is undeniably the main character, and Carolyn is who I found most compelling and interesting to read about, even from other characters’ point of view. She’s a smart and resourceful woman, and she’s self-reliant in a way that I found refreshing. Her flaws are real and serious–never cute or quirky, although Scott Hawkins writes about all of his characters with a dry sort of humor that had me laughing aloud more than once. Due to her unusual upbringing, Carolyn’s not always great at being human. She can be narcissistic and is sometimes callously cruel, and she has to fuck up big time before she becomes who she needs to be by the end of the book.

This, I think, is what I like best about Carolyn. She’s allowed to be kind of awful in a way that female characters often aren’t, and there’s not a hint of apology for her in the text. She’s not always relatable or sympathetic, the mistakes she makes have terrible consequences, and she actually does some things that are kind of evil, but at no point was I not on Carolyn’s side. Every step of the way I was cheering for her to be successful in her ultimate goal (which is a pretty amazing goal that I’m not going to spoil).

Hawkins’ prose is perhaps just workmanlike, but he has a knack for capturing hyperviolence as well as humor and even some very tender moments in an almost naturalistic way. The world he’s created doesn’t feel real exactly, but it feels alive and lived in, with just a hint of high camp in in the details. The action scenes have a cinematic quality to them that makes me hope that someone gets the rights to film this story (although I think it would require a tv miniseries to do it properly). Overall, there’s an absurdist quality and a kitschiness to the novel that I found deeply enjoyable. And while the prose may not be especially beautiful, it’s highly readable and the story is structured in such a way that I didn’t want to put the book down at all (which is why I read it less than a day, in basically two long sessions).

The Library at Mount Char is definitely a book I will be evangelizing for this fall and winter, and I’m actually looking forward to reading it again myself, perhaps closer to Halloween when the nights are longer and colder and I can curl up under a blanket with this book and a warm drink. In the meantime, I’ll be suggesting to everyone I know that they read this book that way.

Do it. You won’t regret it.

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