by T.L. Huchu
Series: Edinburgh Nights #1
Also in this series: Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: June 1, 2021
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
Sixth Sense meets Stranger Things in T. L. Huchu's The Library of the Dead, a sharp contemporary fantasy following a precocious and cynical teen as she explores the shadowy magical underside of modern Edinburgh.
When a child goes missing in Edinburgh's darkest streets, young Ropa investigates. She'll need to call on Zimbabwean magic as well as her Scottish pragmatism to hunt down clues. But as shadows lengthen, will the hunter become the hunted?
When ghosts talk, she will listen...
Ropa dropped out of school to become a ghostalker. Now she speaks to Edinburgh's dead, carrying messages to the living. A girl's gotta earn a living, and it seems harmless enough. Until, that is, the dead whisper that someone's bewitching children--leaving them husks, empty of joy and life. It's on Ropa's patch, so she feels honor-bound to investigate. But what she learns will change her world.
She'll dice with death (not part of her life plan...), discovering an occult library and a taste for hidden magic. She'll also experience dark times. For Edinburgh hides a wealth of secrets, and Ropa's gonna hunt them all down.
Content warnings: View Spoiler »violence and death (via motor accident, magic, and good old-fashioned stabbing, including magical violence against children), kidnapping (of children), grief, police violence and extortion, medication and housing instability, alcohol use (including an alcoholic side character), hunting of animals for food « Hide Spoiler
Look, all you really need to know about this book is it’s about a Black teen who talks to ghosts and ends up investigating the disappearance of a child in a post-catastrophe Scotland, and it’s AMAZING. It’s creepy and delightfully atmospheric and most likely going to be on my top ten books of the year.
‘Seriously, who brings a catapult to a duel? I like your style[.]’
Fourteen-year-old Ropa dropped out of school to support her Gran and her younger sister. She’s a ghost talker, a go-between who delivers messages from the dead who haven’t yet crossed over back to their loved ones, for a fee, of course. She’s good at it, but it’s not particularly lucrative. They live in a broken down caravan in a former farm field – in this post-catastrophe Edinburgh, it’s much more profitable to farm people (for rent) rather than food – so the last thing she needs to do is take on a charity case for a recently deceased woman who’s worried about her missing son.
“Funny thing is, the more I learn, the more I feel that I know even less than all there is to know. It’s like, you reach the horizon, only to see the damn thing keeps on stretching further out. A bit messed up if you’re just trying to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”
I loved Ropa. She’s brash, no-nonsense and street smart. That isn’t to say she isn’t book smart as well, as she listens to podcasts and pirate audio books while delivering her messages across the city – in particular she’s a big fan of who she calls “Uncle Tzu.” She comes off as a bit stand-offish at first, but it only takes a few chapters to realized that she pretends to be a lot tougher than she is, cynical but still bighearted. Ropa’s someone who’ll say she only dropped out of school for the freedom and the money, and then turn around and spend a week trying to find a lost kid. She does read a bit older than her age, but I attributed that to her responsibilities.
‘I’m just getting to like you; don’t die stupidly on me now.’
The story’s told from Ropa’s first person present-tense POV. It took me a few chapters to get into the book due to the POV choice and the amount of world building, but once the mystery was introduced – a ghost keeps bugging Ropa about finding her young son who’s missing – I was hooked. Besides the initial few chapters, the pacing is tight – and delightfully creepy, and there’s some tantalizing hints dropped as to where the story may go next. The plot is a bit predictable, but honestly, with characters like Ropa, her Gran, Jomo and Priya, I was having too much fun to care. Her Gran’s seemingly a sweet older woman who taught Ropa everything she knows about talking to and casting out spirits. While she’s not able to do much – or even leave the caravan – she’s the heart of Ropa’s family. Jomo is her best friend since childhood, though his family is much more well-off than hers, while Priya is a wheelchair-using medical student with perhaps too much of a taste for adventure.
“I guess the world always looks more beautiful through a telescope. But if you use a microscope, you see things how they really are – up close and personal – and what you get is much scarier.”
The world-building is fascinating, from the titular Library of the Dead (the underHume joke still has me giggling) to the everyThere, where the dead wait to pass on, to a ghost-directed baking lesson in a posh couple’s kitchen. There’s at least two magical systems, the one taught to Ropa by her Gran that seems rooted in their Zimbabwean culture and the Scottish system. Ropa plays mbira music to help bring the dead into focus so she can understand them, but she’s had less success with the more metaphysical lessons. The Scottish version is more old-white-dude Greek-myth-influenced science-over-superstition magic that she learns from reading books from the Library.
Overall, an easy 4.5 stars, and I will definitely be picking up the next book in this series next March (yes, I set a calendar reminder for it). Overall, an excellent dystopian Scottish fantasy that both young adults and adults who like brash but bighearted heroines and creepy plots would enjoy.