Title: The Library of the Dead by T.L. Huchu
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: 4 February 2021
Genre: Adult | Fantasy
Rep: Scottish Zimbabwean mc/side characters, Scottish Indian main side character, wheelchair user
Page extent: 336 pages
Sixth Sense meets Stranger Things in T. L. Huchu’s The Library of the Dead, a sharp contemporary fantasy following a precocious and cynical teen as she explores the shadowy magical underside of modern Edinburgh.
When a child goes missing in Edinburgh’s darkest streets, young Ropa investigates. She’ll need to call on Zimbabwean magic as well as her Scottish pragmatism to hunt down clues. But as shadows lengthen, will the hunter become the hunted?
When ghosts talk, she will listen…
Ropa dropped out of school to become a ghostalker. Now she speaks to Edinburgh’s dead, carrying messages to the living. A girl’s gotta earn a living, and it seems harmless enough. Until, that is, the dead whisper that someone’s bewitching children–leaving them husks, empty of joy and life. It’s on Ropa’s patch, so she feels honor-bound to investigate. But what she learns will change her world.
She’ll dice with death (not part of her life plan…), discovering an occult library and a taste for hidden magic. She’ll also experience dark times. For Edinburgh hides a wealth of secrets, and Ropa’s gonna hunt them all down.
The Library of the Dead is the start of a fascinating new fantasy series set in a dystopian Edinburgh (my home city, kind of…) and inspired by Zimbabwean magic. It has a really interesting world, but there just wasn’t enough time spent with the most interesting parts for me to love this one.
The Library of the Dead follows Ropa, a teen living in a caravan village with her grandmother and sister. Ropa earns money for rent by ghosttalking: she delivers messages from ghosts to living people. But when one ghost asks her to find her missing son, Ropa is drawn into a huge conspiracy that is kidnapping children and milking them for youth.
The book is definitely on the stranger side. It’s written in a very young (young as in teen/hip/cool) style, and is absolutely full of Scottish slang, Scottish idioms, Scottish ways of saying things. It is set in Edinburgh which is the closest city to where I grew up (I lived in the middle of nowhere) so I loved getting to see all this Scottish history, speech and places. Huchu has done an absolutely brilliant job of writing from the POV of a young Scottish teen: it was hugely reminiscent of my childhood, and of pretty much every single conversation I have with everyone back home whenever I talk to them. Unfortunately, I have come to the realisation that the way we Scottish people talk is INFURIATING. How do people put up with us using the word like every two sentences?! Look, Huchu did such a great job getting it sound so realistic, but I just didn’t really get on board with it because it kept annoying me. I think a lot of the annoyance possibly came from the stream of consciousness style first person POV. This is obviously just not a style I jig with, it felt like so much unecessary and random commentary on events. But whether it was the Scottish style of talk or the stream of consciousness that annoyed me most, I now plan to change literally everything about the way I talk because I don’t know how people put up with me if this is what I talk like (and it definitely is, I recognised so many things I say!!)
In saying this, I think this POV/style really helps you discover more about Ropa, who is one of the best things about this book. She is such a brilliant person: so full of spunk and quirkiness and fierceness and anger at the injustice in the world. She’s so full of energy that she really burns off the page and eclipses what’s actually happening. You kind of just want to keep reading just to know what ridiculous thing she’s going to think next – I was snorting with laughter the whole way through. But this did also have the downside of really taking you out of what should be a horrific, gruesome, dark world. Nothing ever felt really serious because of how Ropa reacted to situations. I do also think Priya was written very well (and I love seeing a disabled character in a wheelchair in such an action packed fantasy!!) She was so much fun (hello green hair?! She is definitely my people) and I loved her energy for life and danger.
What I also loved was this world. There are so many fantastic elements. For starters, the magic! Ropa’s ghosttalking uses a mbira (a Zimbabwean musical instrument used for communing with the dead) to help tether ghosts to the human world where she can talk with them. Some of the passages describing the music/mbira as Ropa used it were absolutely beautiful and were some of my favourite passages in the book. I also really liked the magic that requires training aspect: it’s involved lots of science and philosophy as Ropa tried to learn magic, that put a different spin on magic than a lot of other fantasy novels do. But there just wasn’t enough of this! The mbira disappears after the first 20% of the book and I just longed for it to return because that magic was so cool. Some of my favourite scenes are Ropa’s ghosttalking deliveries (particularly the gay baking scene!!) But they also just disappesred fairly early because of the main quest of finding the missing children.
I also loved the very interesting The Library of the Dead, the book’s namesake, a library for Scottish magic built in a tomb! The worlds of the ghosts, such as the EveryThere, were also really fascinating, with the terrifying creatures stalking anyone alive who reaches the place. But as with above, these excellent worldbuilding details barely featured. I would have thought The Library of the Dead especially would have had a more important role in the story, given it’s what the book is named after.
The later half of the book kind of goes back and forth between some really interesting, almost-creepy moments that are weird and darker and you don’t really know what the fuck is going on which is great (like the house with the Brounie!) Or they go slightly too far and verge more into this-doesn’t-make-huge-amounts-of-sense and has come out of nowhere (e.g. Who the actual villain is. A person named only once is the villain? What?!)
So all in all this book was a very conflicting read for me! There are things I absolutely loved and things I really didn’t. But I definitely encourage you to read this one, particularly if you enjoy the stream of consciousness style of writing/first person POV, as I think that was the main thing I struggled with. The world is fascinating and Ropa is such a fierce and gutsy character, so full of life she leaps of the pages.