This is a Review (and Q&A!): The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins

August 06, 2015

Disclaimer: I received The Library at Mount Char from the publisher for review consideration. Thanks to Crown Publishing for giving me the chance to read it!

"Carolyn, blood-drenched and barefoot, walked alone down the two-lane stretch of blacktop that the Americans called Highway 78. Most of the librarians, Carolyn included, had come to think of this road as the Path of Tacos, so-called in honor of a Mexican joint they snuck out to sometimes. The guacamole, she remembered, is really good." - pg. 1, The Library at Mount Char

And here we have another case of a book surprising me in the very best way.

I was initially on the fence about trying The Library at Mount Char. It certainly sounded weird (kidnapping, ancient gods, and an all-powerful library), but for whatever reason its blurb didn't grab me. Its creepy cover and a smattering of thumbs-up reviews, including a "practically perfect" rating from Stefani at Caught Read Handed, tipped the scales when a Crown rep (hi, Danielle!) asked if I'd be interested in a review copy. And I'm so glad they did!

Not only did she send me a book, but Danielle also arranged a brief Q&A with author Scott Hawkins. Some responses have been edited for brevity.

Someone (me) asks you for a one-sentence summary of The Library at Mount Char. Go. 
Monty Python presents The Godfather starring the X-Men.

Yeah, so, about this book being weird... the story follows Carolyn, one of several children that Father (their not-so-benelovent overlord) kidnapped to raise in his Library and train in his ancient "catalogs" of knowledge. There's David, the blood-soaked expert in the art of murder; Margaret, who can commune with the dead and may be rotting away herself; and many others who can heal, read the future and control minds with the touch of a hand. And then there's Carolyn, tasked with learning the languages of the world, be they human, animal or even dragon. Now, Father has vanished, and Carolyn is only just setting into motion what he has been preparing his Librarians for from the beginning...

If you could become master of any of the catalogs, which would it be and why?
Probably Felicia’s catalog, transportation. I love to travel, but I hate airports. Raising the dead would be handy too. I really miss my Dad. 

Hawkins doesn't shy away from the rough stuff; this book is more gore-spattered than my usual reads, and it is no way short on psychological trauma. We also have to come to terms with the good and bad of all the characters, including our protagonist. Carolyn may be our troubled heroine, but she isn't above manipulating others, including unsuspecting people outside of the Library, to achieve her ends.

The book deals with a lot of heavy themes; murder, sexual assault, and torture are some obvious ones. What was the hardest part of the book for you to write? (The less spoiler-y, the better!)
The sexual assault scene was far and away the hardest. I really sweated that one. I have, I think, five versions of it, ranging from “something else happened” through PG and PG-13 up to “very brutal indeed.” The version that got published was the PG-13 one—disturbing, purposefully so, but not as immediate and horrifying as it could have been. It’s told after the fact, which gives a little more emotional distance than something told as it's happening.

Although the book can stand on its own, I was abuzz with questions when I reached the end, and I think there's plenty of room for Hawkins to further explore the world he crafted in his fiction debut.

The ending begs for a sequel, but I've read elsewhere that you will only "probably" write it. Any updates on that?
The short version is that I’d like to do a sequel, but I’m not sure I can make it work. In a lot of ways, writing a sequel to an existing story is harder than making something up from scratch. Think how rare it is for movie sequels to be as good as the first in the series. You can mitigate that somewhat if you know you’ll be doing a second one, but I failed to think about that much. When I was writing Mount Char I had no way of knowing if it would ever be published. If I’d been sure, I probably would have done a little more planning. 

Because his bibliography includes Linux Desk Reference and Essential Apache for Web Professionals, here's a bonus nerd question:

How is writing code different from writing fantasy? How is it the same? 
To me they feel like almost totally different skill sets. There’s a certain amount of creativity to both, being able to look at a blank screen, see a goal, and figure out how to get there, but the process of going from blank screen to finished project is completely different.
With writing, I start by trying to imagine concrete scenes without any sort of plan as to what the finished product is going to be. With programming, you start with a goal in mind of what you want the software to do, then start thinking of ways to break that overall functionality into components. With programming, you get immediate and specific feedback about what is and isn’t working. You write code iteratively, and to a large extent you know if it’s working or not. Writing prose is a process of training yourself to recognize stuff that isn’t working. You don’t get feedback until months or years after you’ve written something.  

With its unique blend of high-fantasy, slasher and cerebral horror, and cheeky humor, The Library at Mount Char really does have something for lovers of all genres... or should I say "catalogs"? Maybe I shouldn't. Go read it!

I know a bunch of y'all have read The Library at Mount Char. Let's get chatty!

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