The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
October 1, 2015 by Leslie Anderson
A book hasn’t reached off the shelf and grabbed me like The Library at Mount Char in years. The cover, the blurb, the first page—it hooked me and reeled me in, leaving me up hours past my bedtime a few nights in a row.
A missing God.
A library with the secrets to the universe.
A woman too busy to notice her heart slipping away.
I adore how this book gets right down to business. Other authors might be tempted to explain the bizarre world that Carolyn inhabits, but Hawkins resists this trap.
A perfect, non-spoilery example: at one point, Carolyn is worried that there might be pneumovores in the woods. I have no idea what a pneumovore is, but I don’t need to know: it’s obvious that Carolyn fears them. And if she fears them, that means it’s some sort of unimaginably terrifying beastie.
Almost all of the things she thinks/talks about in the book that aren’t explained work like this. I always understood the intent of the information, even if the specifics eluded me. And that’s perfect. By including all this information we don’t know, it makes Carolyn seem bigger, smarter, and less human. It makes her world seem utterly bizarre and never ending. Even if it didn’t help shape our image of Carolyn, taking the time to explain everything would distract from the momentum of the book. And The Library at Mount Char has some of the best momentum I’ve ever read.
Frankly, I didn’t want to waste time on the “how” and the “why” of Carolyn’s world because I was focused on juicer answers. From the first chapter, we’re given hints that Carolyn is planning something, or maybe has already started putting events in motion. It’s amazing just how tantalizing Hawkins makes this, while hardly giving you anything to go by. Even more amazing for me is that he can do all this from Carolyn’s point of view without the feeling like her withholding concrete thoughts about her plans is false. Her refusal to think about what was going on felt utterly genuine, and having now finished the book, I completely understand why.
Carolyn wasn’t the only POV character. There were actually quite a few, and Hawkins handles the various POVs masterfully. In one chapter he might keep to strictly an omniscient view point, whereas in another it’s exclusively limited third person. I normally get real persnickety about POV inconsistencies, but this book reminds me that it’s okay to break the rules, so long as you know what you’re doing.
Though I think I’m in the minority on this thought, Carolyn is my favorite. Despite her supremely weird upbringing, she’s so real. Honed to a sharp edge by all of her training, perhaps, but underneath all that she’s strong, broken, loving, calloused, genuine, and utterly false. She’s complicated beyond her years, and even though she’s not necessarily a “good” person, her reasons for not being a good person make me sympathetic, and I couldn’t help but root for her, even when things get a little dodgy.
I won’t discuss the other characters much because, by default, talking about them at all is a little bit spoiler-y, but I do want to mention them.
One brings a dose of real humanity, and that person makes so many scenes read like a punch in the gut. But at the same time, their goodness also softens some of the bigger blows. They care so much, and it made me warm inside watching them prove it.
The other character, honestly, is my least favorite. I don’t dislike them or anything; they’re fine, just a touch boring compared to Carolyn’s larger-than-lifeness and the other characters’ genuineness. Whereas I couldn’t stop reading other sections, when there were a stretch of chapters from this character’s POV, I’d normally take the opportunity to finally go to bed. I actually saw this as a bit of a blessing, and didn’t mind it because otherwise, my quest to understand the plot would have kept me up all night.
And my word, the plot. Every chapter would open up a dozen questions and answer the tiniest sliver, but in such a way that I’d have to take a break from reading for a few seconds to process what this new sliver of information could mean. Sometimes this would lead to wild speculation or hopeful guesses, other times, that beautiful feeling of “Ooooh, no way! That’s PERFECT.”
This balance of answering questions while bringing up a dozen more, combined with my sympathy for Carolyn and my desire to see wrongs righted, propelled me through the book in three sittings.
In my opinion, Hawkins had the perfect place to end the book: lots of questions, but not all, were answered. Most of the goals had been achieved, but not quite all of them. It was a moment where everything came together beautifully and everything felt right. If he had ended there, this would be a 5+ star book. It’d be the kind of book people get sick of hearing me talk about.
But it kept going. And not just for a few pages, but for a hundred. A new plot kicks into place in these last pages. This secondary plot relates to the plot of the first two-hundred pages, but in a way that makes me feel like it guts the emotion behind the initial plot. And while, logically, I can (mostly) see how this secondary plot makes sense, it doesn’t feel right.
Non-specific spoilers ahead (IE, you might be able to see how this would affect the story once you start reading, but I won’t use any names or give anything away directly)
The secondary plot, in part, puts two characters who previously seemed to hate each other, at peace. I really, really didn’t like that, for two reasons: it tries to make a character who should be loathed into a “good-guy,” or, at least, a loving and affable person who did what they did for a good reason, even if it was hard. Were I the wronged party in this scenario, the explanations used would have done nothing to quell my rage. In fact, it would have been like throwing gasoline on a fire. I would have exploded with an even deeper fury. So the surprisingly congenial ending between these two characters felt wrong on the highest level.
The rest of the ending, and the subplot surrounding it, didn’t bother me as much, but it felt cheap compared to the first two-hundred pages. It went too fast, it didn’t go as deep, and since this part of the book covered a more human element, that speed hindered me from connecting on a level that made the character’s growth feel genuine.
I like the fact that the main characters couldn’t all get what they wanted, but the ending still felt a touch too ... happy and optimistic, like “oh boy, here we go on another wacky adventure!”
I love stories with a happy ending, I actually prefer pointedly happy endings, but only if it feels genuine. Something about this didn’t, probably because at no point did the book promise happiness, and the adventure that was had was in no way “fun” to the people involved. It was brutal, dark, twisted; lives and even souls were at stake, and lost. Characters purposefully pushed the boundaries of their humanity because the stakes seemed worth it, to them.
Based on that, my perfect ending would have been one of nervous or tentative optimism paired with both a sense of wonder and a feeling of regret.
This is still one of the best books I’ve read in ages. I’d rate the first 200 pages higher than most anything I’ve ever read, but unfortunately loving the first part of the book that much really made everything I didn’t like about the end of the book stand out in a way that I can’t ignore.
Still, this is a stunning novel, and I can’t wait to see what Hawkins has in store for us next.