Review: The Library of the Dead, by T.L. Huchu

Russ Allbery eagle at
Fri Jan 27 19:56:17 PST 2023

The Library of the Dead
by T.L. Huchu

Series:    Edinburgh Nights #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2021
Printing:  2022
ISBN:      1-250-76777-6
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     329

The Library of the Dead is the first book in a post-apocalyptic (sort
of) urban fantasy series set in Edinburgh, written by Zimbabwean author
(and current Scotland resident) T.L. Huchu.

Ropa is a ghosttalker. This means she can see people who have died but
are still lingering because they have unfinished business. She can
stabilize them and understand what they're saying with the help of her
mbira. At the age of fourteen, she's the sole source of income for her
small family. She lives with her grandmother and younger sister in a
caravan (people in the US call it an RV), paying rent to an
enterprising farmer turned landlord.

Ropa's Edinburgh is much worse off than ours. Everything is poorer,
more run-down, and more tenuous, but other than a few hints about
global warming, we never learn the history. It reminded me a bit of the
world in Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower in the feel of
civilization crumbling without a specific cause. Unlike that series,
The Library of the Dead is not about the collapse or responses to it.
The partial ruin of the city is the mostly unremarked backdrop of
Ropa's life.

Much of the book follows Ropa's daily life carrying messages for ghosts
and taking care of her family. She does discover the titular library
when a wealthier friend who got a job there shows it off to her, but it
has no significant role in the plot. (That was disappointing.) The core
plot, once Ropa is convinced by her grandmother to focus on it, is the
missing son of a dead woman, who turns out to not be the only missing

This is urban fantasy with the standard first-person perspective, so
Ropa is the narrator. This style of book needs a memorable protagonist,
and Ropa is certainly that. She's a talker who takes obvious delight in
narrating her own story alongside a constant patter of opinions,
observations, and Scottish dialect. Ropa is also poor.

That last may not sound that notable; a lot of urban fantasy
protagonists are not well-off. But most of them feel culturally
middle-class in a way that Ropa does not. Money may be a story
constraint in other books, but it rarely feels like a life constraint
and experience the way it does here. It's hard to describe the
difference in tone succinctly, since it's a lot of small things: the
constant presence of money concerns, the frustration of possessions
that are stolen or missing and can't be replaced, the tedious chores
one has to do when there's no money, even the language and vulgarity
Ropa uses. This is rare in fantasy and excellent characterization work.

Given that, I am still frustrated with myself over how much I struggled
with Ropa as a narrator. She's happy to talk about what is happening to
her and what she's learning about (she listens voraciously to
non-fiction while running messages), but she deflects, minimizes, or
rushes past any mention of what she's feeling. If you don't like the
angst that's common from urban fantasy protagonists, this may be the
book for you. I have complained about that angst before, and therefore
feel like this should have been the book for me, but apparently I need
a minimum level of emotional processing and introspection from the
narrator. Ropa is utterly unwilling to do any of that. It's possible to
piece together what she's feeling and worrying about, but the reader
has to rely on hints and oblique comments that she passes over quickly.

It didn't help that Ropa is not interested in the same things in her
world that I was interested in. She's not an unreliable narrator in the
conventional sense; she doesn't lie to the reader or intentionally hide
information. And yet, the experience of reading this book was, for me,
similar to reading a book with an unreliable narrator. Ropa
consistently refused to look at what I wanted her to look at or think
about what I wanted her to think about.

For example, when she has an opportunity to learn magic through books
from the titular library, her initial enthusiasm is infectious. Huchu
does a great job showing the excitement of someone who likes new ideas
and likes telling other people about the neat things she just learned.
But when things don't work the way she expected from the books, she
doesn't follow up, experiment, or try to understand why. When her
grandmother tries to explain something to her from a different angle,
she blows her off and refuses to pay attention. And when she does get
magic to work, she never tries to connect that to her previous
understanding. I kept waiting for Ropa to try to build her own mental
model of magic, but she would only toy with an idea for a few pages and
then put it down and never mention it again.

This is not a fault in the book, just a mismatch between the book and
what I wanted to read. All of this is consistent with Ropa's defensive
strategies, emotional resiliency, and approach to understanding the
world. (I strongly suspect Huchu was giving Ropa some ADHD
characteristics, and if so, I think he got it spot on.) Given that, I
tried to pivot to appreciating the characterization and the world, but
that ran into another mismatch I had with this book, and the reason why
I passed on it when it initially came out.

I tend to avoid fantasy novels about ghosts. This is not because I mind
ghosts themselves, but I've learned from experience that authors who
write about ghosts usually also write about other things that I don't
want to read about. That unfortunately was the case here; The Library
of the Dead was too far into horror for me. There's child abuse, drugs,
body horror, and similar nastiness here, more than I wanted in my head.
Ropa's full-speed-ahead attitude and refusal to dwell on anything made
it a bit easier to read, but it was still too much for me.

Ropa is a great character who is refreshingly different than the
typical urban fantasy protagonist, and the few hints of the magical
library and world background we get were intriguing. This book was not
for me, but I can see why other people will love it.

Followed by Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-01-27


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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