Worldsoul by Liz Williams
I have spent all my life involved with words. Inevitably, as children, we learn by drawing on the wisdom stored in words. Later, I made my living writing and speaking. It completes the circle that I should give back and help renew the store of knowledge for future generations. Although I’m now long retired, there’s been a retreat away from speaking. Perhaps this reflects the fact I’ve always been more comfortable with written language. You always get a second chance with what you write. You can’t easily take back words once spoken. So it’s interesting to pick up a book which concerns itself with the defence of a library. If the collection was so vast, the range of knowledge it contained so comprehensive, it would become a target. The questions, of course, would be who might want the contents of such a library, for what purpose(s), and who would defend against the attack?
Worldsoul by Liz Williams (Prime Books, 2012) is a little place balanced nicely between Earth and the Liminality where magic from all the dimensions comes together. The library that stands in the Citadel is a version of the missing Library of Alexandria, continuously updated over the centuries. It’s supposed to be neutral ground, the collection lacking only the few grimoires possessed by the Court to be truly comprehensive. Before the Skein disappeared into the past of the Liminality with the “original” Library of Alexandria, the Court and the Library would co-operate. Now they barely speak to each other.
Librarian Mercy Fane is one of those responsible for guarding the shelves. Unless properly warded, who knows what might escape from the pages. Fortunately, she’s an expert with her Irish sword. However, nothing can prepare her for the female disir that bursts in from the frozen north. The figure is through her and gone before she can act to stop it. Perhaps that’s because Loki was responsible for the sending. The old Norse God is readying a plan with Jonathan Deed, the Abbot General of the Court. They’re going to forcibly recover the original Library of Alexandria from the Skein, displacing the library in the Citadel, and use all the magical resources for their own evil purposes. Opposing the Abbott General is the Shah who, incidentally, has an ifrit problem. Conveniently, the alchemist Shadow can be prevailed upon to offer her expertise. When the disir attacks Shadow, this brings her to the attention of Mercy Fane. There’s also Gremory, a demon Duke from Hell whose task is to recover the ifrit from the Shah. Her opposite number is Elemiel who has an unfortunate habit of breaking things although, as an angel, there can sometimes be closure.
Now we have the set-up, we come to the central conceit of the novel — as usual, it’s intended as the first of a series with an initial three books sold. The ways to and from Earth and the other dimensions are called storyways. As straightline routes, you move by following the texts of the well-known tales. But there are some stories that only a few remember, and other more secret and less-travelled routes are between the lines and through the subtexts. Depending on the level of magical ability passed down through the genes, the different types of being can pass from one place to another by following the descriptive words in the texts like spells. There are, of course, maps of the storyways. Think of them as being like indexes to books or to sections in a library. At the top of each classification will be the modern urban myths and stories. In turn, these will throw off threads of narrative which lead down to the different levels of legends for each section. The most common themes are quests involving heroes but, sooner or later, you encounter magical beings and Gods. Beyond them? The archetypes and inchoate myths where the stories overlap but never come together. The oldest maps are from China and the Middle East where cultural records go back the longest. This excludes aboriginal cultures because they tend to be oral not written traditions.
As a plot device, Liz Williams is therefore giving her characters a kind of go-anywhere-that-can-be-described ability since, by definition, once the words open a passage between the destination and the place occupied by the readers, there can be motion in either direction. Indeed, as Shadow discovers to her cost, there can be motion in unexpected directions. Now think of the world as being like an onion, all its mysteries being held in a library of books. That would mean the worst kind of enemy would eat the stories in the books and spit out their own. Lurking in the background is the Barquess. This is a ship sailing the stars in search of the Skein and the original library they “misplaced” in time. Perhaps significantly, it’s Captained by Greya Fane, one of Mercy’s mothers. There’s also Mareritt who travels around on a sleigh and sees the secrets in the minds of those who ride with her.
When you put all this together, it takes a while to understand who everyone is and how they relate to each other. Such is always the way when you embark on a major series and introduce your cast of long-running characters. As fantasy goes, this may start quite small but it has a genuinely epic quality about it as forces assemble to confront each other in bloody battle. When talons meet jaws and barbed tails, not everyone can emerge unscathed, for even in the best regulated stories, there must always be some who fall by the wayside. Indeed, having access to what should be the definitive book taken from the shelves of the library itself, is not always going to tell you in advance what the ending will be. Sometimes, you just have to wait to read the next in the series to find out what happens next.
Worldsoul is a completely entrancing fantasy, exploiting the essential nature of narrative as its own reality. If that sounds like a paradox that cannot be resolved, read the book to see how Liz Williams squares the circle and leaves the magic intact.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.