It's interesting to read a book about a place that you once visited. When I was in college, I studied abroad in England, and took a weekend trip out to Edinburgh, Scotland, where I hiked around the city and Holyrood Park. It was a fun trip, and the city's remained a place that I'd very much like to revisit someday.
While I wait for the stars to line up for that particular endeavor, it was a reason why I was attracted to T.L. Huchu's urban fantasy novel, The Library of the Dead. It's a brisk novel that does the double-duty of both launching a world for a series, while also playing out a mystery that pulls in its strong-headed lead character, Ropafadzo “Ropa” Moyo.
Huchu sets his novel in a somewhat recognizable, nearish future. The existence of magic and ghosts aside, climate change has prompted some big societal upheavals, and Scotland is on its own: society's either collapsed or the divide between the comfortable wealthy and those who aren't has widened, and Ropa and her grandmother and younger sister etch out an existence in a van. Her family dabbles in magic, and Ropa dropped out of school to work as a ghostalker: someone who communes with the dead to carry on messages to their living relatives for a fee. It's not lucrative work, but it helps pay the bills.
She gets dragged into a mystery when a recently-deceased woman named Nicola comes to her asking her to look for her missing son, and discovers that someone's been milking the life essence from children around the city: leaving them listless and artificially aged. It's a horrific crime, and while Ropa is initially reluctant to help, her grandmother eventually convinces her that these are the types of things where money isn't always the priority.
Ropa begins digging around, and ends up delving a bit more into the magical world: a friend brings her to a magical library, where she begins reading up on some of the basics beyond ghosttalking, and later, gets captured by a malevolent spirit inhabiting an ancient home, which further steers her towards solving the mystery of who's behind these horrific acts.
As genres, urban fantasy and mysteries are bodies of work that rely heavily on well-trod paths and tropes. There are exceptions, of course, but I've always found books like Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, Cherie Priest's recent Grave Reservations, or Archer Mayor's Joe Gunther novels to function less on the basis of individual works than as a larger, ongoing, serialized story. As a result, debut books have a lot of pressure here: they have to not only deliver a compelling character to carry the actions of the story, but a compelling world in which those actions take place. Huchu does an admiral job here with his futuristic, almost post-apocalyptic Edinburgh: a city littered with ghosts of the past lingering is ripe for any number of mysteries, while the introduction of this quasi-secret magical institution allows for plenty more, and more are coming: a sequel, Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments is due out in April, picking up Ropa's story for a new adventure.
The pitfalls with these sorts of genres is that it's easy to let the needs of a story dictate where the story's headed, rather than the character's decisions. Library of the Dead does fall prey to that a couple of times: detours that conveniently provide the bread-crumbs for the next discovery that advances the plot along to its next point. It's not a fatal flaw by any stretch of the imagination: Huchu keeps the book humming along neatly, but it's one of those things that makes me wish that we had a little more time to look around and see things come together because of the character's agency, rather than coincidence.
Ultimately, Huchu has set up a fine foundation to springboard off of, and there's plenty of time and space for sightseeing as we follow Ropa along with her next adventure. I'll be looking forward to seeing what happens next. And hopefully, I'll end up back in Edinburgh again, and will get to imagine Huchu's fantastic world while I do so.