the library at mount char

The Library at Mount Char is Scott Hawkins’ grim creation story, an imagining of the running of the cosmos not attributed to one supreme power but to multiple ones with vast reigns. Hawkins’ imagination runs wild in his first novel, setting up an incredibly detailed hierarchical system of deities that borrows from multiple religions and then mixes those elements into a mishmash that is wholly darker than any religious creation story. He seamlessly blends H.P. Lovecraft with more contemporary ideas, finding common ground while utilizing Lovecraft’s method of writing about monsters too vast and overwhelming for human thought and vocabulary. And by giving the point of view over to one of the higher beings, he allows the godliness of that character to ruminate on humanity.

Hawkins’ storyline is complex and, for at least the first part of the novel, intentionally difficult to follow. Centering on Carolyn, The Library at Mount Char keeps the reader in darkness to preserve the suspense. It’s partially because our narrator doesn’t know any other way; from her early years as a child, she’s simply been the child of Father, an all-powerful entity who enlisted the help of eleven other children to help him run his catalog of books. Carolyn’s references to “Americans” skews the reader’s assumptions of what she means, and the way Hawkins uses common ideas – like libraries, the more proper usage of “Father” – deliberately throws one off-guard. It’s only later, when supernatural elements seep into the plot, that the reader can better determine what is realistic to one’s own world and what is invented for the novel.

But Hawkins never really lets up from shielding the reader. The narrative consistently features gaps that we have to fill in; sometimes they’re provided, or at least explained in simplistic terms, but the strength of The Library at Mount Char is that it never seeks to dispel the magic. And Hawkins doesn’t mistake backstory for rote explanation: he explores pivotal moments in Carolyn’s past in order to foreshadow her future overthrow of Father.

She’s not the only character in The Library at Mount Char; there’s also Erwin, a military vet working with Homeland Security, and Steve, an ex-con helping Carolyn steal a special item from an area she cannot enter. While Hawkins doesn’t give his characters a lot of depth, he does spend interludes introducing their personalities and flaws to the reader, with the intention of setting up a moral play later in the novel. For the most part, it works, despite a perceived lack of focus in the first half. But it’s Steve who becomes the most important factor, the voice of reason as the world falls into cataclysmic darkness.

There is, however, limitations to Hawkins’ secretive storytelling technique. It requires Carolyn to deliver a lot of exposition explaining what’s happening, especially to her human counterparts Erwin and Steve. They’re stand-ins for the reader, ignorant of the universe’s larger scheme, and so their presence helps provide the small amounts of information we do get about how this world works. But those descriptions tend to slow the plot down, namely about three-quarters of the way through The Library at Mount Char. At that point, it’s unclear exactly where Hawkins wants to progress. Still, these moments are understandable, and, as stated before, they mimic another fantasy writer’s method: introducing concepts that, because of humans’ inability to understand, are left intentionally vague.

The Library at Mount Char has an impressive vision of the inner workings of the universe, and that unique approach keeps the reader’s mind spinning as the novel continues to evolve and unfold. Hawkins centralizes on the making of a god, the vengeful wrath of a supreme being that has the ability to do just about anything. While his book is grim and disturbing throughout its entirety, the finale finds a more lighthearted balance. Much like the Christian creation story, there is both darkness and light in The Library at Mount Char‘s god-like creatures; Hawkins’ exploration of this theme helps land his novel in a prestigious catalog full of the best fantasy authors.

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