The Library of the Dead

by T.L. Huchu

Cover image

Series: Edinburgh Nights #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2021
Printing: 2022
ISBN: 1-250-76777-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 329

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The Library of the Dead is the first book in a post-apocalyptic (sort of) urban fantasy series set in Edinburgh, written by Zimbabwean author (and current Scotland resident) T.L. Huchu.

Ropa is a ghosttalker. This means she can see people who have died but are still lingering because they have unfinished business. She can stabilize them and understand what they're saying with the help of her mbira. At the age of fourteen, she's the sole source of income for her small family. She lives with her grandmother and younger sister in a caravan (people in the US call it an RV), paying rent to an enterprising farmer turned landlord.

Ropa's Edinburgh is much worse off than ours. Everything is poorer, more run-down, and more tenuous, but other than a few hints about global warming, we never learn the history. It reminded me a bit of the world in Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower in the feel of civilization crumbling without a specific cause. Unlike that series, The Library of the Dead is not about the collapse or responses to it. The partial ruin of the city is the mostly unremarked backdrop of Ropa's life.

Much of the book follows Ropa's daily life carrying messages for ghosts and taking care of her family. She does discover the titular library when a wealthier friend who got a job there shows it off to her, but it has no significant role in the plot. (That was disappointing.) The core plot, once Ropa is convinced by her grandmother to focus on it, is the missing son of a dead woman, who turns out to not be the only missing child.

This is urban fantasy with the standard first-person perspective, so Ropa is the narrator. This style of book needs a memorable protagonist, and Ropa is certainly that. She's a talker who takes obvious delight in narrating her own story alongside a constant patter of opinions, observations, and Scottish dialect. Ropa is also poor.

That last may not sound that notable; a lot of urban fantasy protagonists are not well-off. But most of them feel culturally middle-class in a way that Ropa does not. Money may be a story constraint in other books, but it rarely feels like a life constraint and experience the way it does here. It's hard to describe the difference in tone succinctly, since it's a lot of small things: the constant presence of money concerns, the frustration of possessions that are stolen or missing and can't be replaced, the tedious chores one has to do when there's no money, even the language and vulgarity Ropa uses. This is rare in fantasy and excellent characterization work.

Given that, I am still frustrated with myself over how much I struggled with Ropa as a narrator. She's happy to talk about what is happening to her and what she's learning about (she listens voraciously to non-fiction while running messages), but she deflects, minimizes, or rushes past any mention of what she's feeling. If you don't like the angst that's common from urban fantasy protagonists, this may be the book for you. I have complained about that angst before, and therefore feel like this should have been the book for me, but apparently I need a minimum level of emotional processing and introspection from the narrator. Ropa is utterly unwilling to do any of that. It's possible to piece together what she's feeling and worrying about, but the reader has to rely on hints and oblique comments that she passes over quickly.

It didn't help that Ropa is not interested in the same things in her world that I was interested in. She's not an unreliable narrator in the conventional sense; she doesn't lie to the reader or intentionally hide information. And yet, the experience of reading this book was, for me, similar to reading a book with an unreliable narrator. Ropa consistently refused to look at what I wanted her to look at or think about what I wanted her to think about.

For example, when she has an opportunity to learn magic through books from the titular library, her initial enthusiasm is infectious. Huchu does a great job showing the excitement of someone who likes new ideas and likes telling other people about the neat things she just learned. But when things don't work the way she expected from the books, she doesn't follow up, experiment, or try to understand why. When her grandmother tries to explain something to her from a different angle, she blows her off and refuses to pay attention. And when she does get magic to work, she never tries to connect that to her previous understanding. I kept waiting for Ropa to try to build her own mental model of magic, but she would only toy with an idea for a few pages and then put it down and never mention it again.

This is not a fault in the book, just a mismatch between the book and what I wanted to read. All of this is consistent with Ropa's defensive strategies, emotional resiliency, and approach to understanding the world. (I strongly suspect Huchu was giving Ropa some ADHD characteristics, and if so, I think he got it spot on.) Given that, I tried to pivot to appreciating the characterization and the world, but that ran into another mismatch I had with this book, and the reason why I passed on it when it initially came out.

I tend to avoid fantasy novels about ghosts. This is not because I mind ghosts themselves, but I've learned from experience that authors who write about ghosts usually also write about other things that I don't want to read about. That unfortunately was the case here; The Library of the Dead was too far into horror for me. There's child abuse, drugs, body horror, and similar nastiness here, more than I wanted in my head. Ropa's full-speed-ahead attitude and refusal to dwell on anything made it a bit easier to read, but it was still too much for me.

Ropa is a great character who is refreshingly different than the typical urban fantasy protagonist, and the few hints of the magical library and world background we get were intriguing. This book was not for me, but I can see why other people will love it.

Followed by Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-01-27

Last modified and spun 2023-01-28