Twelve-year-old Alice is a stickler for the rules. She certainly wasn’t trying to eavesdrop when, late one night, she overheard her father’s heated conversation with a fairy, and about her, of all things. Nor could she find it in her heart to speak up about her innocent trespass when her obviously troubled father announced a sudden lengthy voyage at sea. Now his ship is sunk with all hands drowned, and Alice is shooed off to the estate of a supposed uncle she’s never met — an estate called the Library, and dominated by a labyrinthine example of its namesake. Within its walls Alice has to set the rules aside, because she’s surrounded by creatures that will manipulate her powers as a Reader for their own agendas, and she’ll need to play their game to find the truth about her father.
The creatures of The Forbidden Library are probably my favourite thing about the book. They avoid the simplicity of some fairy tales where everything beautiful is good, and everything ugly is rotten to the core; here, even the downright adorable is bloody dangerous. The waspish fairy Vespidian might broadcast his nature from the very first, but you also have hordes of sweet, comical kiwi-like birds that are so murderously dangerous they have to be imprisoned in their own realm, and giant talking cats who are playing the long game in which Alice might be their ally or merely their pawn.
Everything and everyone here has its own agenda, and there are no exceptions for family or the presumably future love interest. The closest thing Alice has to a friend is a self-centred talking half-cat. This very agenda-driven magical world is one of the story’s greatest strengths, but in a roundabout way it also contributes to one of its greatest weaknesses, which is the character of Alice.
I really wanted to like Alice, because she’s fabulous on paper — she’s intelligent, resourceful, and self-reliant. But I couldn’t connect to her, and I think the main reason for that is because she has no one she can be a true equal with, no one she can be herself with and thereby give me a hook into her emotions. She doesn’t have any friends. The people we choose as friends and how we choose to be with them are a significant part of who we are at any age, but at Alice’s age, it’s all the more defining. We don’t just love other plucky young lasses of fantasy like Hermione Granger because of her intellect and ingenuity, we love her because of her loyalty and her compassion and her ability to balance emotional vulnerability with great strength, and all of those dimensions that come out of a person in the way they relate to the ones they love. Without those, Alice feels sort of flat.
For a bibliophile like myself, book-based magic is an easy sell, but I really do like the magic system presented here. Alice is a Reader, which gives her the ability to read books that would be incomprehensible to an average person. Some of those books are portals to other worlds. Some of them lead into prison realms which hold nasty critters captive, and the only way out is to kill them or force them to submit, at which point they and their powers become the Reader’s to manifest. There’s a good ethical quandary here too — due to the nature of their acquisition, the Readers’ powers are rooted in death or slavery, which does get called out by at least one character, and it’s not a quandary that Alice can resolve in one book.
This is where the book’s other weakness lies, though. This is a library full of magical books that can take you to other worlds. That’s basically everything I ever fantasised about as a kid. I am the target audience for this book (well, okay, the me of twenty years ago is), so I should’ve been really excited. But the other worlds just aren’t really that fantastical. We don’t get to see all that much, and those we do get to see feel like fairly mundane set-pieces rather than wondrous pocket worlds. Even Alice never seemed to have any emotional reaction or sense of wonder about what she was experiencing, when, as someone passionate about books, shouldn’t she be pretty blown away by the fact that they contain worlds and she’s one of the chosen few who can traverse them? Ten-year-old me is off hyperventilating somewhere at the very idea.
I like the book enough to continue with the series, for sure. Wexler’s writing is really enjoyable to sink into. He doesn’t talk down to his audience and he has an evocative but not overwrought way of describing things that makes me think I would enjoy his adult books very much. But I’m hoping that this book’s sequels can deliver a little more depth and a little more wonder. All of the ingredients are here, they just need to gel.