The Library of the Dead by T L Huchu

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The Library of the Dead by T L Huchu

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Alex Mitchell
Reviewed by Alex Mitchell
Summary: Rivers of London meets Stranger Things in this fast-paced, dark adventure story featuring an endearingly plucky and guileful protagonist and a really well-realised magic system.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 336 Date: February 2021
Publisher: Tor
ISBN: 978-1529039450

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Ropa Moyo is a ghostalker, using Zimbabwean magic (and a bit of Scottish pragmatism) to take messages from the dead of Edinburgh for their living relatives. Ever since she dropped out of school, she's been using it to support not only herself, but her younger sister and her ageing grandmother. However, there's an evil stalking the ruined streets of Edinburgh, targeting the city's children. Soon, Ropa is pulled into the search for a missing boy at the request of his dead mother. She will end up discovering an occult library and realise that the world of magic is far bigger and more dangerous than she ever could've imagined. Will she find the missing children and bring an end to this evil, or will it claim her too?

The story is told through the eyes of Ropa Moyo, a teenage girl of Zimbabwean descent, who dropped out of school and now has to do odd jobs for Edinburgh's dead in order to get by. With her dagger, slingshot and faithful pet fox River, she's not someone to be messed with. However, just because Ropa dropped out of school doesn't mean that she's stupid, she frequently quotes Sun-Tzu while on missions, listens to audiobooks (pirated, of course, because she has better things to spend her money on) on various sciences and true crime, and used to be at the top of her class before she dropped out of school. Seeing her getting really excited while reading an ancient tome of magical theory is really quite endearing. She lives in a rusty old trailer on a farmer's field in Hermiston, along with her Grandma and her younger sister Izwe. Ropa's interactions with the two of them show that, beneath the rather hard exterior, she is a kind person who wants to make sure that Izwe doesn't make the same mistakes that she did when she was younger. All in all, she's a very well-written protagonist, being blunt and quite harsh at times, but with more enough heart-warming and humanising moments to keep her from being insufferable.

The book takes place in Edinburgh, albeit in some kind of close parallel to the modern day. Plenty of Edinburgh's buildings are wrecked, there's a shanty town full of homeless people, the police regularly harass people and women are legally allowed to carry knives to protect themselves against sexual assault. Something called "the catastrophe" is mentioned as occurring in the backstory, and Belfast is said to have been "lost". Britain is being ruled by an unnamed king and appears to have much more power over the government than normal. Honestly, I think the story maybe could've done without it – this is already a setting with ghosts, an occult library and a regulated magic system, all of which were enough to get me interested, having it also be a dystopian nightmare doesn't seem all that necessary.

The magic system in the book is really interesting. In this setting, magic is treated as essentially another branch of science, in the same way that there are different academic schools of physics or biology, with each author building on the work of those that came before them. The occult library, known as the UnderHume, acts as both a library (complete with membership cards and late fees), and also the centre of Edinburgh's magical community. A lot of Ropa's powers are based on the practises of the Shona people's religion, such as using a Mbira to talk to the dead, summoning a large number of spirits for guidance or work (known as a Bira ceremony), and astral-projecting into the afterlife. Even the afterlife, known as the everyThere, seems to be at least loosely based on Shona theology. Overall, the magic in this setting is quite interesting and I was really drawn into the world.

In conclusion, this book is a really well-thought out and features a tough but still very likeable protagonist. The book is said to be the first book in a series, and I for one am interested to see where this series will go.

Similar books by other authors: Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch – a similar urban fantasy mystery series.

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