The Library at Mount Char, a spectacular debut novel from Scott Hawkins, combines epic and urban fantasy. It’s confusing for a long while, but thankfully the focus ultimately tightens. Better still, Hawkins creates memorable characters whose true nature hovers just below the actual narrative. 

At the story’s center are Carolyn and Steve. He’s “American,” meaning “normal.” And she’s mostly comfortable in America but not really “of it.” Their past could possibly be linked, but Hawkins uses the entire book to gradually explain exactly how. In the present, however, she’s inwardly devious with an outward innocent streak. And her foil Steve is equal parts naïve and steely jawed. 

At first, I thought it was a small story. Carolyn says to Steve, “come to this place with me and do this thing. I’ll pay you to do it.” But Hawkins fooled me. It was so much more. Allegorical. Universal in scope. But still relatable and funny at times. When I wasn’t thinking, “now what’s happening?”

Orbiting around them are a variety of other folks from Erwin the famous military veteran to David the vicious fighter in a tutu and Jennifer the pothead with a talent for healing people. Hawkins gives these supporting characters enough development to flesh out how the story evolves. At the same time, the true nature of the plot is never completely obvious. 

Get the feeling I’m trying not to tell you much about the story? You’re right. That’s because I think this is a book where the less you know, the better off you are. I simply recommend you open your mind and let Hawkins take you away.

My conclusions

This book is everything I hoped The Gray House would be and wasn’t. Instead, Mount Char starts with head scratching sections but doesn’t linger there. Hawkins moves into a juggernaut of creativity and action. Still, he never leaves the weird factor. He writes tight prose, never veering into unnecessary over description. On the other hand, in the weirdest moments this tendency to under reveal is frustrating. This is like no library I’ve ever visited.

I honestly can’t believe this is a debut. Then I looked up Hawkins’ author page on Goodreads. I hoped to see news of a sequel, or at least another novel in progress. Instead, I saw that Hawkins previously published five computer science books. That helped something click for me. The Library at Mount Char unfolds with precision. It feels like every line of text has a purpose, as do the action sequences. If Hawkins has a programming or systems administration background, he’s successfully translated those skills into fiction. 

I’ve been involved through both family members and careers with people like this. They typically blend creativity and logic extremely well. And Hawkins is no exception. Mount Char is built on a logical system that at first only Hawkins understands. He doles out each page, character, and story element with the precision of a careful editor. I love that about this book. And like a fully functional application, I suspect reading it again would reveal elements I missed the first time.

I recommend The Library at Mount Char for readers of science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism. If you need straightforward stories, this probably isn’t for you. 

Pair with The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu because of some similarities in writing style and genre, although they’re quite different in plot.