This is a dense fantasy by an accomplished New Zealand writer who seems to be informed by a degree in literature and a historian’s interest in myth, rather than a voracious consumption of (or borrowing-from) the modern fantasy genre. It merges Arthurian legend with Norse and Christian mythology in a unique way, cemented by a vision of fairie (the Sidhe) that feels like an extra-dimensional alien race. This works surprisingly well, bringing moments of revelation that feel exciting, wise, and new. It doesn’t hurt that a meditation on the history of libraries and books, particularly those lost in fires, is mixed in with the lot.
The book’s strongest aspect is the writer’s sense of place. Knox describes the marshes of Norfolk, the streets of Aix-en-Provence (where there is a library), and the forests of the Sidhe with equal, loving attention. The paragraphs of description, rather than feeling intrusive, are to be savored and leave the reader feeling present in the landscape. This makes for a long, slow read, but it is not a story that drives relentlessly to an overwhelming conclusion. The fun is in the small discoveries and the insights dropped along the way.
Here is one phrase that made me think. It is on page 202, and related by a mysterious, part-Sidhe man named Shift. He says, “The Great God of the Deserts, the God from the Void, sequestered himself many hundreds of years ago. His worshippers had too many competing views of his nature, and it unsettled his mind. That’s a thing that can happen to gods. They’re very impressionable.” This twists the anthropologic theory that men create gods, rather than the other way around, by assuming absolutely that the Judeo-Christian God exists. I’ve heard worse, and weirder, explanations for the state that the world is in right now.