(2021) Olivie Blake, Tor, £16.99, hrdbk, 374pp, ISBN 978-1-529-09523-4
This book generated enormous hype after being self-published by the author on Tiktok, and drawing over fifteen million views. This led to a fierce bidding war by several publishers, with Tor Books emerging victorious. The big question for readers is whether the hype was worth it. After my reading I have to say regrettably not.
The book has a fabulous premise and sets its case out well in the opening chapters, but sadly fails to maintain momentum.
In a world dominated by powerful magicians, a secret society has been secretly protecting the contents of the Library of Alexandria, believed lost to a fire millennia ago. A mysterious figure, Atlas Blakely, (the Atlas of the title), approaches six such super-powered mages with an invitation to train as security staff for the library, currently housed in a London mansion. Of the six, one will be eliminated by the end of the training programme. Only two of the six know each other already.
Problems abound as soon as the sextet take up the offer. None of them seems to realize what the ‘elimination’ will involve until late on though it is spelt out blatantly obviously early on. Someone will have to die.
None of the characters, including the Six, Atlas and his deputy, Dalton, are remotely likable. Nor is it really clear precisely what powers and characteristics each has, as they seem to generate whatever energy and power is needed at any given point in the narrative. There is an empath, two characters who can rearrange atoms and even distort time, A mind manipulator who seems to also be a Succubus, and a character who can communicate with plants and flowers.
There is remarkably little action, magical or otherwise for a 370-page novel. Characters talk, argue, hold meandering philosophical dialogues, speculate, and, given how dysfunctional they appear to one another, they also do a great deal of bed hopping. Everyone (except Atlas) seems to sleep with everyone at some point. Even in a key action event early on when the library is raided and the six defend it, there are breakaways to more philosophical reflection, breaking up any sense of suspense and rarely adding anything to a narrative flow of any kind.
The library is run by a restrictive elite, but a rival group seek to expose the continued existence of the library and share its wisdom with the World. It is never explained why this isn’t done freely, and the few works mentioned as being on the library shelves are contemporary, not guarded masterworks from antiquity.
We never get a tour of the library, or learn much about its members. Only one conversation is held between one of the six apprentices and a library card bearer. We are never told who has access to the library, how they found out about it or how they are screened if at all to tell if they are agents from the opposing faction, who ought to just get a library card and either photocopy or steal the books to share with the rest of us instead of conducting magician-led midnight commando raids.
Security wise, the library mansion is a sieve, with one of the six chosen protectors even unwittingly bringing in characters who travel within his mind, a powerful witch and a mermaid creature who might be his estranged child.
The narrative gets extremely convoluted and much of the seemingly profound discussion goes precisely nowhere. The characters are so weakly defined that at times it is easy to forget who is who and which one is pontificating about what. Two further books are in the offing in a work that is likely to divide fans into Marmite factions, with some seeing a classic fantasy while others see the worst indulgent excesses of the E. L. James Fifty Shades of Grey novels from 2011 onwards.
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