The Library of the Unwritten

After last month’s ghost stories I’m continuing the afterlife theme by recommending The Library of the Unwritten by American author A.J. Hackwith. This novel opens in an area of Hell known as the Unwritten Wing and takes its characters on a journey through the afterlife worlds of several ancient religions. The Library of the Unwritten (2019) and its sequel, The Archive of the Forgotten (2020) are both available in paperback or as ebooks. I read them first on my Kindle but then ordered printed copies because I know that these are novels I shall want to reread many times.A third volume called The God of Lost Words is due out soon.

Stories that are imagined but never written are stored in the Library of the Unwritten, an independent region of Hell presided over by stern Head Librarian, Claire, and her assistant Brevity, a former Muse banished for trying to keep some inspiration for herself rather than passing it on to a human artist or writer. Claire was once a human story-teller but now it is her job to keep stories on their pages even if this means forcing restless characters back into their books. She keeps reminding tender-hearted Brevity that these are just invented characters, not real people. When Lucifer sends a nervous young demon called Leto to say that one of the unwritten books is missing, Claire is annoyed. The book in question has manifested itself as one of its characters and gone off to find its author, who lives in Seattle. Claire takes Brevity and Leto with her to Earth to search for the runaway book.

In Seattle nothing quite goes to plan. Claire makes a startling discovery about Leto and when they track down the missing character, who insists on being called Hero, it is too late to save his book from damage. Then they encounter a Fallen Angel called Ramiel (Rami) who has been sent by the Archangel currently ruling Heaven to retrieve a dangerous book. Rami mistakes Hero’s book for the one he is seeking. In the ensuing struggle Leto manages to get hold of a fragment of parchment which Rami was carrying. Back in the Library, Hero is rejected by his own book and Claire is puzzled by the writing on the fragment. She consults her colleague, the demon Andras who is Curator of the museum of magical objects known as The Arcane Wing. He identifies the fragment as coming from the hugely powerful artefact known as The Devil’s Bible which was once hidden on earth. One of Claire’s predecessors as Librarian, a Viking called Bjorn the Bard, brought the book back to Hell but some of its pages are rumoured to be missing. Claire decides that the missing pages must be recovered. The first step is to talk to Bjorn the Bard but that means taking the grim Raven Road to Valhalla.

This is just the start of an epic journey for Claire, Brevity, Leto and Hero which will take them to one of the most mysterious cities on Earth and into a series of Hells where terrifying ordeals have to be faced. Rami relentlessly pursues them, urged on by an increasingly out of control Archangel. During the journey, dark secrets are uncovered and unexpected alliances are formed but a shocking betrayal puts the future of the Library of the Unwritten and its characters at risk. Flawed as they are, can Claire and her companions save the Library?

As a hopelessly bookish person I have always loved books set in libraries or featuring dedicated librarians. As long as cats and cakes are allowed, living in a great library is my idea of paradise and being appointed Head Librarian would be my ideal afterlife job. At first, the Library of the Unwritten with its `pleasant smell of sleeping books and tea’ seems an attractive place but we are soon reminded that it is situated in imperfect Hell, not perfect Heaven and that something about the Unwritten Books attracts demons. Claire is still learning about the history and purpose of the Library by reading the logs kept over thousands of years by previous Librarians but the Logbook will only show her pages at random. Hackwith puts her readers in the same situation by starting each chapter with a quote from a past or present librarian. These quotations offer tantalizing hints such as What is a story without want, without desire, without need?, Eternity bends to the whims of mortal imagination, and When a realm loses access to dreams and imagination, it starves. The Library of the Unwritten is a novel with big ideas about the power and purpose of storytelling but it doesn’t give up its meanings easily. You have to work for them by fully engaging with the concepts and characters.

Other authors, such as Jasper Fforde in the amusing Thursday Next novels, have written about characters who escape from their original books or plays and it is something that occasionally happens in real life – just think of Sherlock Holmes. However, I believe that Hackwith’s concept of a Library of Unwritten is a truly original one. Such books are full of extraordinary potential just because they are incomplete and can still be changed. As an author of both published and unwritten novels, this idea resonates with me. Reading this book made me think with guilt, sadness and shimmers of hope about the stories I’ve left incomplete or never started to write even though they exist in my head and heart. You don’t have to be a writer to appreciate Hackwith’s work. In the second volume, we get to visit the Unsaid Wing which stores words that were thought but never spoken. I’m sure we can all think of times when our lives changed – or failed to change – because important things were not said when they should have been.

Something else I like about this novel is that it manages to criticize Fantasy fiction in an entertaining and constructive way. There is an area of the Library of the Unwritten called the Damsel Suite where some restless characters are allowed to live together. These are mainly lazily imagined female characters who have rebelled against being token women, just there to be rescued or to marry the hero. I can think of many examples of such characters in myth, legend and older Fantasy fiction. In this novel the Damsels are allowed to play a key role in fighting for the Library and their own freedom. I shall be more careful in future to do justice to my secondary characters. One of my pet hates in Fantasy is the use of one-dimensional villains with no redeeming features.This view is shared by one of the characters in The Library of the Unwritten. Hero has been cast as such a villain in his author’s unwritten story but is convinced that there is more to him than that. Handsome sardonic Hero may speak like a typical supervillain but he tries to overcome the stereotype and rewrite himself as a hero. That gives him a really interesting story arc but he is just one among a group of fascinating characters.

There is melancholy Fallen Angel Rami, who longs to be allowed back into the City of Heaven but whose strongest imperative is to save and protect human souls wherever he finds them, and Leto the new demon who struggles to remember his past life as a human teenager. Leto needs to discover why he has condemned himself to Hell (an idea also explored in the enjoyable TV series Lucifer) before he can take the painful road to redemption. Brevity is literally a colourful character (cornflower blue skin, golden eyes and seafoam green hair) whose ditzy manner hides an inner sadness and a severe lack of confidence. She needs to learn how to stand up to the strong personality of her boss and become her own kind of Librarian. Claire is a wonderfully complex and engmatic character. She is a forceful woman of great courage and intelligence who has cut herself off from most of her emotions and memories. Hackwith has perfected the art of withholding information until just the right moment. We are told that Claire is the author of many unwritten books but we don’t know if she has condemned herself to Hell for neglecting her family or for neglecting her talents. During The Library of the Unwritten we learn that Claire has made some terrible mistakes, including having a passionate relationship with one of her own characters. That only made me want to know more about her. The characters in this series change as they go through traumatic events and interact with each other. It is a tribute to Hackwith’s own creative powers that she made me care about all of them.

In case I’m making this novel sound too cerebral I’ll finish by pointing out that The Library of the Unwritten can also be read simply as a cracking adventure story. The settings are vividly described, whether it’s the eerie Silent City of Mdina in Malta, the raucous mead-hall of Valhalla or the gloomy underworlds of almost extinct religions. There are exciting fights, battles, shootings, magical duels, ordeals and chases and if it’s monsters you like, this novel will give you demons, raven-warriors, hellhounds, a gargoyle, a giant crocodile and a minotaur who is much more than he seems. So, whether you are looking for an entertaining adventure with characters to fall in love with, or for a serious study of the power of the human imagination, I thoroughly recommend this series.

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Geraldine Pinch