Scott Hawkins' The Library at Mount Char (2015) is a compelling, experimental fantasy novel. Set in the 2010s in the state of Virginia, it features a group of orphans who have been tortured by a deity who imprisoned them in an extra-dimensional and vast library that contains the total knowledge of the cosmos. It's a strange, surprising novel. Perhaps a more accurate description would be it is a combination of Neil Gaiman's American Gods, Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," Roger Zelazny's The Chronicles of Amber, and Jorge Luis Borges's "La biblioteca de Babel." Indeed, it combines strange mythology (Gaiman), cruelty-laced phantasmagoria (Ellison), a cast of cruel demigods (Zelazny), with a disorienting, labyrinthine fictional ontology (Borges).
Despite the novelty of the concept and Hawkin's skill at rendering vivid and memorable characters, I couldn't get too into this book. I give it a 3/5. Why? Put simply: the characters weren't relatable.
The main characters, the demigods--they're called "librarians"--each have a particular "catalog" or subject in the library that they are forced to master by their god-like father: e.g. murder, medicine, prophecy, death, etc.. The protagonist, Carolyn, focuses on language; her psychotic brother, David, focuses on murder and war. There were other flatly characterized librarians: the "goth" girl, Margaret (death); the pot-smoking healer, Jennifer (medicine); the animal whisperer, Michael (animals), and others who were barely sketched.
These characters were compelling in the beginning, but in execution they weren't fully realized. For the most part, they seemed wooden and alienating. And when they were characterized in depth, they had a bizarre, inhuman quality to them. David, for example, was super evil: a torturer, sadist, and sometimes rapist. Despite the fact that the novel wants you to see him as the sad product of abuse, I just couldn't. He legitimately had no redeeming qualities at all, and his abusive and cruel nature was too extreme for me to relate to him as a human. So, he was basically a monster from my perspective.
Margaret, the librarian of death, was equally off-putting: her leitmotif behaviors consisted of creepy giggles and torturing animated decapitated heads. The protagonist, Carolyn, was the most relatable of the three, but, alas, not by much; the novel spends a lot of time exploring her past and rounding her out. But her experience in the strange world of her god-like father's library has made her evil, at least from an ordinary human perspective. For example, she massacres several dogs, kills an innocent lion, and blows up two helicopters filled with people.
There were two minor, non-librarian characters I could root for: Steve and Erwin. The problem with these two characters for me, however, is that they were macho-types whose fragile psychologies was barely probed and treated only obliquely. Both had a rough, no-BS exterior but both were barely keeping it together, a compelling tension that the narrator largely ignores. And both had a traumatized past: Erwin was haunted by the combat he saw in Afghanistan and Steve had a criminal past that resulted in the death of one of his best friends. Neither were able to talk about their traumatic past. Steve sought spiritual relief in Buddhist meditation. Both characters were very similar. Erwin was a little more folksy than Steve. Steve came off like a self-denigrating twerp, perhaps betraying Hawkin's skepticism towards self-help practices like meditation. But both characters were basically rendered as good guys with feet firmly planted on the ground; they served as anchors of the ordinary in a novel filled with strangeness.
The fantastical concepts, the world building, the renderings of the sublime and otherworldly: these things aren't what keep me coming back to fantasy novels; instead, it is for the vivid, likable characters that I can root for through engaging crises. In other words, fantasy novels provide me virtual friends who I want to spend a long time with.
Despite the strange, labyrinthine plot and the occasional flash of cosmic horror, The Library of Mount Char didn't completely work for me. Why? The traumatized, nihilistic characters of the novel--corrupted and haunted by abuse--were just too alienating.