The Library of the Dead

T. L. Huchu (Tor)

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Living in Edinburgh with her younger sister, Izwi, and their grandmother, Ropa has long stopped going to school. “No, sir, as long as you can plus or minus your shillings, you don’t need none of that nonsense in your noggin.” To make ends meet she uses the traditional Zimbabwean magic taught to her by her grandmother to provide ghoststalker services to the local dead, billing their (living) families for carrying messages from beyond the grave. Of course, not before reading them the kauderwelsch – the terms and conditions.

With her fox companion, River, she roams the city to find clients. One night, she comes across Nicola, a woman unable to move on until she finds her missing boy. But she can’t pay for Ropa’s services, and volunteering doesn’t pay the bills. Nevertheless, against her better judgement, she agrees to search for missing Oliver.

Soon she discovers that Oliver isn’t the only child who has gone missing and those that returned appear to be transformed with mysterious magic. With the help of her friends, Priya and Jomo, and knowledge from the library of the dead – an underground library of secret occult knowledge – Ropa searches the darkest parts of the city for an evil dwelling on her patch.

Ropa is a great heroine, fearless (for the most part) and tough as nails, she goes up against institutions and dark magic greater than herself. But beneath her nonchalant attitude and bravado, we also get to see her more vulnerable side – being the main source of income for the family and dodging greedy landlords is a lot of stress to handle and sometimes it threatens to break.

Priya and Jomo make great secondary characters, and I love the varied representation here – Jomo is a young Black boy who works in the library of the dead (with his eerily stern and strangely formal father) and Priya is a super smart South Asian girl who gets around in her wheelchair (even down stairs). It’s refreshing to see underrepresented identities in a novel where their story doesn’t focus around oppression.

I also really liked the contrast between the traditional Shona magic and the mathematic magic of the Library of the Dead. In a teaching moment, Gran tries to show Ropa how to connect with magic:

“What is magic if not the thing that connects us to the land and those who rest in it, the voices that whisper in the wind – our ancestors and their forbears? … We are made of dirt and we return to the dirt when we die. That’s why, if you want to learn magic, you must start with the earth element before all else. Now feel the earth, that’s where you draw your power from. Feel it in your fingertips. Everything we are and will ever become is drawn from the land.”

I like how her magic is based on a communing with the elements and connection to the world around them, passed down from mother to daughter: “gran says her mum taught her…without books, no school or nothing like that”. It echoes the oral cultures from which their power is drawn from.

In contrast, the magic at the Library of the Dead is catalogued, defined and wielded for power – it’s been institutionalised by gatekeepers and scholars who decide who is ‘worthy’ of magical practice. It reminds me of the words of Russell Means, in a speech he gave that illustrates how European ‘written’ knowledge sought to invalidate the knowledge of oral cultures:

“The process itself epitomizes the European concept of “legitimate” thinking; what is written has an importance that is denied the spoken … [philosophers] took a piece of the spirituality of human existence and converted it into code, an abstraction … Each of these intellectual revolutions served to abstract the European mentality even further, to remove the wonderful complexity and spirituality from the universe and replace it with a logical sequence: one, two, three. Answer!”

I am interested to see how this juxtaposition plays out in the rest of the series and I would love to see Ropa connect with the magic of her ancestors. I really enjoyed the book and can’t wait for the next installment!

A special thank you to the team at Tor for making an ARC available on NetGalley.

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