Cross pollination in any form of media can provide unique results. Recently, I reviewed the novel The Charmed Wife, which uses the traditional fairy tale as a framing device to tell a story of marital abuse. One of the biggest aspects that drew me to Library of the Dead was that it’s a mixture of Scottish and Zimbabwean influences, which combine into this unique ghost story.
Published by Tor Books, Library of the Dead follows the character of Ropa. A teenager who has dropped out of school to become a Ghostalker, she makes her living by acting as a messenger between the living and those who have passed away. However, when one ghost tells her that her son has gone missing, she takes it upon herself to investigate who is bewitching the children of Edinburgh.
As previously mentioned, one of the most attractive elements of this book was its cultural influences. The novel itself was written by T.L. Huchu, who was born in Zimbabwe and currently lives in Scotland. This inspiration comes together in a unique way, as Ropa uses the magics her grandmother taught her to drive the story as she navigates Edinburgh. The setting is also interestingly a dystopian parody of our own world. Though there are a lot of modern references – real locations in Edinburgh are mentioned, and Ropa talks about having seen Trainspotting and played Mortal Kombat – this is a world where the monarchy has a lot more power in the UK and the common people aren’t doing well.
There also appears to be this underlying theme of elitism and, to some extent, racism that pops up throughout the book, adding an extra layer of bitter reality to the novel. Regularly, Ropa faces up to people who look down on her, and these range from outright blatant examples – Ropa being shaken down by the police for her money after doing a job within the first couple of chapters stuck out to me – and the slightly more subtle in her interactions with other characters, like when she first enters the Library of the Dead. While it isn’t a main component of the novel, it’s still an intriguing take. It may also be a reason why Huchu decided to have a monarchical system of government in his setting rather than a democratic one, and it also ties into Ropa’s character establishment. Though she is still a child, she’s a street smart survivalist and a product of a dark and bitter world.
Huchu has a strong level of penmanship. When a writer creates any level of fiction involving magic or the supernatural, there usually needs to be a clear explanation to the reader about the mechanics about how their world works. In the case of this novel, I really enjoyed the way it was brought to life:
“…alien as the idea may seem, this plane of existence is grafted to our own like a stillborn Siamese twin. The two places are locked together in a deathly embrace. Gran says it’s like the Earth and the moon, twinned for all time, one alive, the other dead.”
He also writes a very likeable teenage character. At times, when an author writes a significantly younger character from a first-person perspective, there is always a risk of losing believability. However, that is not the case with Ropa – she feels real and tangible. Though this world is a dark and depressing one, Ropa is a sarcastic and cynical girl with the capacity for kindness. Though she does have her moments of seriousness, she also has some moments of comedy:
“If you see anyone dressed like me, go the other way.
“You mean if I see a guy in a dress I should go the other way? What if they’re wearing a kilt instead? This was Scotland the last time I checked.”
Library of the Dead is a ghost story that goes outside the typical. Though it is less horror than I initially expected and more YA, it is still a strong character driven story. With a strong female protagonist exploring a unique world, this novel is a fantastic debut and a must have for fantasy fans.
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