In “The Library at Mount Char,” author Scott Hawkins creates an engrossing fantasy world full of supernatural beings and gruesome consequences, but struggles when trying to interweave it with reality.
A group of children, orphaned by some unknown tragedy, are adopted by a seemingly all-powerful being they call Father, who seems to be the emperor of space and time. In a life spanning eons, he has collected a library of knowledge that holds the secret to his terrifying powers, and he enlists the children as librarians, each responsible for mastering specific areas of study.
In Hawkins’s world, power comes with a price. Over the years, David learns to become an unstoppable killing machine. Margaret can navigate the underworld, but needs David to kill her so she can get there, and Jennifer, a drug-addicted healer, to resurrect her so she can report back. Michael can speak with animals, but is slowly losing touch with his humanity. Rachel has the ability to peer into the future through the ghostly eyes of her deceased children, whom she had to kill herself.
They live on the edge of the real world, neither of it nor apart from it, but Hawkins is not always consistent with this. Carolyn, the book’s main character, smokes a pack of Marlboros a day and has a mystical mastery of languages both human and not, but doesn’t know that those “big round cheese-bread things” are called pizzas.
We meet the librarians when they are in their 30s, and Father has gone missing. They fear that some darker force is moving against them and set out to “settle who inherits control of reality.”
The pantheon of malevolent, god-like creatures and interdimensional intrigue Hawkins depicts recalls the cold, unfeeling universe of H.P. Lovecraft, with a little bit of Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series thrown in for good measure.
Hawkins is stingy with details at first and expertly uses implication rather than exposition to create a sense of vast horrors that lie just beyond our understanding. His descriptions are often lyrical and poetic, such as when he describes “the last Monstruwaken,” who lives “barricaded in the crown of the black pyramid at the end of time,” or mentions that Carolyn is fluent in “Quoth . . . the language of storms.”
When Hawkins tries to integrate his fantasy world with the real one, however, problems arise.
For one, the librarians use their powers in irrational ways, leading to a convoluted plot with holes big enough to drive trucks through.
We discover, for example, that one of the librarians can hypnotize people to do her will unquestioningly, and she uses this skill to rob a bank. Carolyn then uses the money to bribe a normal man, Steve, to break into a home for her, and when he gets arrested, sends David to go on a bloody killing spree at the police station to free him. Then she blackmails the president of the United States, who seems to know and fear Father’s power, to give Steve a pardon.
It seems as if Carolyn could’ve just called the president to begin with and gotten everything taken care of a lot more quietly. Later, she tries to explain that there was a method to all this madness, but it seems as if Hawkins is trying to justify the cavalcade of contrivances that build toward the book’s fairly predictable twist.
The dialogue is glib, snarky, and often at odds with the serious matters the characters are confronting. When Carolyn destroys the sun and replaces it with a less-than-adequate source of light (yes, really), Steve’s reaction is bewilderingly blasé. “Are you aware that there have been some agricultural problems? With this new sun you put up?” he asks. “Well . . . most of the plants are dying. Almost all of them, really . . . This has some people a little concerned.”
It has all the import and gravitas of a role-playing fantasy chat room.
Hawkins’s greatest strength is his imagination; it’s unfortunate that “The Library at Mount Char” spent so much time trying to bring things back to earth, where his footing is far less sure.
THE LIBRARY AT
By Scott Hawkins
Crown, 400 pp., $26Michael Patrick Brady, a writer from Boston, can be reached at mike@michael
patrickbrady.com. Follow him on Twitter @michaelpbrady.