The Forbidden Library by Django Wexler
This one I adored. My notes for it look like I just smooshed the keyboard in a happy frenzy!
When Alice’s father goes missing following an argument with a fairy, newly orphaned Alice is sent to live with her distant family member Geryon. Living in a huge, mostly empty house with just Geryon, the zombie-like Emma and the menacing Mr Black for company, Alice is at a loss until she discovers the truth about Geryon’s off-limits library. Soon she’s embroiled in the world of Readers, who control the magic of books by falling directly into them and conquering whatever lies within. Accompanied by Ashes the wry talking Library cat, Alice soon finds herself mixed up in a world of lies, treachery and deceit as she battles to uncover the mystery of the fairy her father was arguing with and discover whether she’s really an orphan after all.
I remember when I wrote my notes for this review it did look pretty much like I’d just bashed the keyboard in some sort of incoherent joy – I loved this book! It’s a little like someone made one giant mash-up of Jasper Fforde, Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland and Narnia and stuck it all between a book cover – all the best bits of each whilst still reading as a wholly original story.
The library is a brilliant idea and one I haven’t really come across before as a setting for a kids book. The idea of readers falling into books reminds me a great deal of one of my all-time favourite (adult) authors, Jasper Fforde and his Thursday Next series, but I love Wexler’s twist that the whole purpose of a Reader falling into a book is to conquer the beings they find in it and wrest them under their control. In The Forbidden Library the Reader is the powerful one, not the book itself (which I know will come as a big shocker to most booklovers).
This is most definitely a book for book lovers though, but without going too far and waxing poetic about the wonder of books – like I said above, the Reader is the one who draws power from the book, rather than the book being all-powerful in the first place. It’s a book for booklovers but it’s not so into books that it estranges the not-so-loving reader. I do get the distinct impression though that some of the beasties and ghoulies that are trapped inside some of the Library books Alice encounters are actually the equivalent of plotlines the author had that just refused to play ball. I’ve got an image in my head of the author shoving all the recalictrant plot lines into one of Alice’s books and shouting ‘Hah! That’ll teach you to be stubborn and not develop!’. I can’t think of a better revenge for an author than trapping a rebellious plot line in a fictional book!
I also loved the deviousness of it all – literally everyone is untrustworthy! It makes for a very curious read as you spend a lot of time trying to weigh each character up alongside Alice to see whether they’re more or less trustworthy than the other characters. You’re always expecting someone to turn traitor on her which keeps you on your toes throughout the book. Geryon’s use of cats as his forbidden library’s guardians is a nice touch – who better to entail the safety and security of your library to than sneaky, slinky, curious, utterly treacherous cats, keepers no thief or intruder could ever fully avoid or trust?
Unusually I found myself absorbed by not just one or two characters but by every single character in the book. Mr Black for example is a brilliant menace – an enormous violent brute, but a brute with a brain. Geryon is part wise-old-man and part evil-git, with just enough grey area to him that makes you wonder how much of each of those traits he really is. Emma… oh Emma. She’s one character I have to know more about in the next book. Isaac… well there’s one character that just really needs a smack! I find him especially interesting though because of all the books where two children are the main characters I honestly find it more difficult to think of books where the girl is Harry Potter and the boy is Ron: it’s not often that the girl’s the main character and the boy’s the sidekick (I am just waiting though for all the angry comments proving me wrong).
Finally I come to Alice. Just like the book itself, Alice is a mad mash-up of some of the best female heroines around. She’s (of course) part Alice in Wonderland, but I can see aspects of Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden in her too, especially her quiet, watchful nature and stubbornness. It makes me wonder how many classical heroes and heroines we’re going to spot during this series. Ashes the Library Cat is a brilliant foil to Alice too – think Cheshire Cat, just as vague but even more sarcastic.
The only caution I would have with this book is that it does have two small swears, ‘p****d’ and ‘b****rd’. Other than this though the book is fine for kids reading things like Skulduggery Pleasant, Harry Potter or the like.
The more I think about this book the more I love it. I wouldn’t normally compare one book with quite so many others but in this case it just can’t be helped. What I would like to know though is how Wexler has managed to write a book that reminds me of so many other classics and favourites but remains completely unlike them as well. I swear there’s some kind of sorcery involved there! This is a series I will be following closely, if only because it’s not every day that I come across a book that causes me to write my notes all in overexcited capital letters. I loved the characters, I loved the plot and the setting is brilliant – all in all a great start to a brand new series and one I really hope will take off hugely over here in the UK.
Thank you to Doubleday for my proof copy on NetGalley. Find The Forbidden Library here.