It was a disaster almost without parallel in human history. The Great Library of Alexandria went up in flames, and much of the sum of human knowledge was destroyed.
Many theories have since been spun about what might have been lost: histories of Atlantis; Archimedes’ designs for a calculating engine; the secret of the Philosophers’ Stone; and so on. Actually, however, we have no idea what was lost. We aren’t even sure when, or how many times, the Library was destroyed. It appears to have been burned at least four times. Julius Caesar set fire to it by accident. The Emperor Aurelian sacked Alexandria during his war against Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. Emperor Theodosius ordered pagan texts held by the Library to be destroyed. And the Library was also reported destroyed by an invading Muslim army in the 7th Century. Written knowledge is a fragile thing.
But what if the Library really did hold something valuable. What if there really was a secret, esoteric history of mankind, and of other races with which we once shared the planet? What if there were actual grimoires? Wouldn’t that be worth saving?
Worldsoul, the new novel from Liz Williams, opens in Alexandria, where a couple of enterprising aliens from a race known as the Skein are about the perform an heroic act of salvage. The Library is spirited off to a multi-dimensional place called the Liminality. Centuries later, in the city of Worldsoul, the Library is still tended and cared for. It has to be. Books contain knowledge. Knowledge is power. People lust after power. And consequently being a Librarian is the most dangerous job in the world.
Thus we are introduced to Mercy Fane, a Librarian with a colorful ancestry and a magic sword that she’s not afraid to use (which is just as well). She also has a cat, of course, although in her case Perra is a ka, an ancestral spirit with the body of a small lion, a human face, and more brains than many of the characters in the book. We meet Shadow, a lady Alchemist who is about to be tricked into the service of Suleiman the Shah of Has El Zindeh. And we meet Jonathan Deed, Abbot General of a society of magicians known as The Court, a man who covets the secrets that the Library holds.
Did you notice that the bad people were men and the good people women? Well don’t worry chaps, we also discover that Lords of Hell, while they might use titles like Prince and Duke, are actually female. Angels appear to be male. Then again, we should probably be wary of ideas like absolute good and absolute evil. After all, none of these people are responsible for the plague of giant flower-bombs than have begun to drop out of the sky onto Worldsoul.
I should be clear up front that Worldsoul is a fast-paced, fun adventure featuring a number of fairly over-the-top characters and a totally over-the-top concept. I don’t expect the book to appear on the World Fantasy Award ballot. But beneath all of the entertainment is the sharp mind of an author with a degree in the Philosophy of Science and a great love for the genres in which she works. Listen:
This part of the map showed the northern storyways. At the top were the more modern folktales, threads of narrative which led down into more ancient groups of legend. Most of them were quests, showing the distinctive golden-brown colour of quest stories and featuring brave children, elf-folk and svart-folk, mythical swords, magical objects. Earlier on, the children had been heroes, usually male, and then gods.
“Here’s something,” Nerren said, peering. The readout showed a partial tale, of a wonderful necklace desired by a goddess: this one was multilayered and emergent into Earth’s present day, but at the bottom a thread disappeared into nowhere. Nerren sighed. “It’s slid past the Holdstockian layer into the nevergone. Looks more like a love story, though.”
Holdstockian layer? Of course. If there is a Theory of Story, Rob’s name has to feature prominently within it.
What Williams is doing here is creating an entire magic system based on stories. It’s like she’s following Clute’s attempts to systematize the fantastic, but assigning real magical power to Story. As a result, books can be scary things.
Mercy took a deep breath. This wasn’t just a private library. These were the books The Great Library of Worldsoul had failed to procure, the books which fell through cracks in realities, the books which were the most dangerous of all. This room contained grimoires: she could tell that by their iron-blood-charcoal smell and the wincing sensation of her skin, as though spiders walked across her flesh. These were the books of magic and sacrifice, of punishment and control. Some of these books, like the text from which the disir had sprung, would be bound with human skin flayed from a living victim. Mercy had met several books of which she was actively afraid, and a number which merely made her nervous. She did not, yet, know which category the books in this library would fall into.
That should be “dísir”, of course, but Williams and her editor, Paula Guran, have wisely decided to ditch the alphabetic complexities here. While Hollywood is presenting us with a simplistic, sanitized version of Æsgard, Williams has gone back to the sources and dredged up some primeval female spirits from Norse mythology who probably pre-figure the Norns and Valkries. She also introduces a goddess called Mareritt — a Danish word meaning “nightmare” — who looks like an ancestress of Jadis, the White Witch of Narnia. Sadly there is no Turkish Delight.
Of course books are not just scary. Some of them are darned smart:
The door opened. Footsteps came along one of the rows, then stopped. Mercy held her breath. She didn’t think it was the same row from which she had taken the book and she hoped The Winter Book would keep its pages shut: books had been known to shout out before now. It must be nice, she thought bitterly, to live in a place like Earth, where inanimate objects didn’t have their own opinions. A jumbled montage of stories — millstones and necklaces and spinning wheels that shouted, “Help! Help!” when stolen — rapidly crossed Mercy’s mind’s eye. It was all Earth’s fault, anyway, for being a place where folk had imaginations. She clutched the book a little more tightly, but it did not speak.
That’s probably just as well, given the person who is close to apprehending Mercy in the act of stealing a book.
But you see what I mean about the book being fun, right? More to the point, it is smart fun. And while The Winter Book might not talk, Worldsoul speaks loudly, clearly and seductively to people who have a passion for books, and a love of folklore. It might possibly be more upfront about being the first book of a series, but then who is going to complain about that? I know I’m not.
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