The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins
Synopsis: When God disappears, his twelve adopted children try to find him and/or take his place, while negotiating internal power struggles and the interference of the US government.
Book Review: This book does almost everything flawlessly. It is a portrait of extremely broken people, as being raised by the Old Testament God Himself is not conducive to good mental health. It is a portrayal of absolute power and absolute unaccountability. It is a study of acceptance of horrors, and forgiveness in the face of the unspeakable. And it will make you wonder if there are Ends so important that even you, yes you, would accept any Means necessary to achieve them. Seriously, this book is good. It’s especially meaningful for anyone raised in a fundamentalist religion, and who has since escaped from it but still has a lot of baggage from that past. Like myself!
Scott Hawkins writes very well. His set pieces are gorgeous, and you’ll remember them for a long time. He has the best/most horrifying zombies I’ve ever seen in fiction, you’ll forever see all other zombies in fiction as pale reflections of what Hawkins accomplished. He absolutely masters dark humor, there are a number of laugh-out loud moments, which is vital for this book, because it is dark. In between the atrocities and gloom it’s good to have that gallows humor pull to you through in a “you have to laugh so you don’t cry” sort of way.
It’s hard to say very much in a review without spoiling this book, because a lot of the story is given to you piecemeal, through twists and reveals. And I really don’t want to spoil those reveals. For the first third or so there’s all sorts of disjointed stuff in the air, and as the novel progresses everything is slowly tied together and brought to beautiful fruition. So I won’t be able to say much more, except if you like Dark, Existentialist, Religious-Flavored, Psychological Horror, with a great touch of humor, this book is absolutely for you.
Two caveats – I disliked how at one point the book made me partially like someone who should be hated. Yes, I know that even Hitler was a good friend to those close to him. It doesn’t change what he did. But that was one of the key points/features that Hawkins was trying to get across, and the fact that he pulled it off means he succeeded, and he should be praised for this. He was trying to make me feel that discomfort, and it worked.
The other caveat is that the book has a climax about 2/3rds of the way through. Everything was wrapped up, and there was still 100 pages to go, and I thought “What the hell? Why are there still 100 pages? What could possibly be left to say?” It turns out – A LOT. Like, the main “redemptive” thrust of the novel! BUT, because most of the loose ends were wrapped up in a huge climactic scene (and following denouement!), Hawkins has to spend a fair bit of time building up tension again, reintroducing conflict and stakes, etc. So the 20 pages following the conflict are a bit of a drag. They’re slow. They’re the establishing scenes that we normally get at the beginnings of novels, not near the end! I kept reading, because the novel had done everything so damn well so far that it had bought a lot of good will with me, and it deserved some slack. It paid off big time, but I can’t help but feel that a more perfect novel would have started introducing these conflicts earlier, before the big climax, so we’d already be hooked into the second-wave action and pulled along smoothly, rather than having this doldrums section. Still, it’s a small price to pay for an otherwise fantastic trip.
Book Club Review: There is a ton to talk about here. Everything I listed above cascades into discussions about Ends/Means morality, the psychology of unchecked power, the power of acceptance, the limits of redemption. Normally I would recommend this without qualifications.
This is a horror novel. I didn’t realize this at first. But there comes a point where enough horrifying things have happened that one has to admit to themselves “Yeah, OK… this is horror.” One of our members was given nightmares. One stopped early, knowing they couldn’t handle what was being portrayed. The author does manage to psychologically distance the most horrific action from the reader, so you don’t feel it viscerally the way that you do in traditional horror. There is some space there, a margin of safety. But the events are still pretty horrific, and you still know about them as they’re happening, even if you aren’t directly present.
I don’t consider myself a horror fan. I like Dark Fantasy and Dark SF, but I don’t read horror. I associate horror with slasher flicks, and torture-porn. So I’m can’t say how well this novel works for dedicated horror readers. For me it was the perfect amount of terrible, without being grotesque. But not everyone draws their line in the same place.
So, I dunno. Ask your book club members first if they’re ok with something dark. If they’re prepared, then definitely Recommended!
The title of this post reads “SF/F Review – The Library at Mouth Char”, not Mount Char.
Thanks for doing these book reviews (or book club reviews, perhaps I should say?). I have discovered a number of really good books from your reviews, and this one was very entertaining and scary, and as you mentioned, it was horror that didn’t feel like horror but more like dark fantasy (although given that at one point she said “No such thing as magic, Scott,” I was wondering if it was actually supposed to be dark science fiction, until I remembered that there were souls and some kind of afterlife, which indicates something in the fantasy genre, to me.)
Huzzah! :) Glad they are of value!
I loved the way you wrote up the progression of reading the novel: it is bananas and successful that he had another 100 pages after the climax, but that first section after the climax was really a slog. This book was hands down the best fantasy book I’ve read in 10 years. It’s wildly ambition to create its own fantasy universe was so enthralling, and it felt like it did so many new things that this should utterly become a new benchmark in fantasy literature: please writers give us anything beyond sword and sorecery and Medieval rehashes. I disagree however that this is a horror novel- in that you wouldn’t call the violence of the Bible horror- it’s just violence. This novel’s suspense is driven by plot, not by generating a sense of dread or paranoia in the reader: instead its just the delight of imagining various infinite powers and the comedy of how godlike people would try to navigate expulsion from Heaven. It was awesome!