Fiction Reviews

The Secret Chapter

(2019) Genevieve Cogman, Pan, £8.99, pbk, 326pp, ISBN 978-1-529-00057-3


The Secret Chapter is the sixth in the Invisible Library series by Genevieve Cogman, but can be read as a stand-alone novel.  The novel is in the historical fantasy subgenre.

Irene is a librarian for an organisation of an acquisitive nature, which requires her to be a diplomat, spy and occasional thief.  Alongside her partner Kai, she is tasked with a mission to save the world... well technically a world, but the one she grew up on, so it is fairly important to her.  She meets with a secretive fae villain who is putting together a team to retrieve a painting in return for the book she needs from him.

This book is set in a fascinating backdrop of connected worlds and careful diplomacy, that definitely draws the reader in.  The function and neutrality of the library, with a not so hidden “past” of outright larceny, which also appears to ensure the safety of the connected worlds by finding books, is a fascinating and complex one.  While I found the lack of explanation of this refreshing, others might prefer to start with an earlier volume in the series to establish some details.

Irene herself is a no-nonsense protagonist, practical and generally unflustered. There is something very British about her. She is likeable and very motivated to help others. Despite her job description including spying, dishonestly and theft, she is a very moral character, who only does those things while in the service of a higher cause, at least as far as she is concerned.

Irene’s relationship with her parents is stilted, clearly affectionate but also distant. They perhaps want her to talk to them more about her emotions and relationships, but seem incapable of initiating that conversation. Irene cares about them, but has no confidence in their love for her.  A generational divide that might be familiar to some.

The relationship between Kai and Irene is an interesting one of support and friendship, whether it is romantic is perhaps a matter of judgement or maybe covered in another novel, but for those who like their adventure without swooning maids and in your face romance, this could be the tale you are looking for.

Kai is a dragon, modelled perhaps in the Asian tradition, who spends much time in the shape of a human, although he can resume his other shape and size at will.  This is similar perhaps to Aliette de Bodard’s based on Vietnamese mythology or Zen Cho’s from Malay tradition.  In this, the dragons we meet are described as Japanese, but it is unclear if all dragons come from that culture of if that is simply the case for these ones.  We meet some other of his kind and get some insights into their culture, although there is still a lot for the reader to learn.

This time and space travelling heist... with dragons, is fast-paced and exciting to read as well as being sensitive and character filled.

Karen Fishwick


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