The Library of the Dead, by T.L. Huchu

Ropa has a tough life, tougher than most in a post-apocalyptic, literally haunted Edinburgh. She had to drop out of school to support her mostly-blind grandmother and younger sister. Her bike got stolen, so she has to walk back and forth across the sprawling city for her job. That job? Ropa delivers messages for ghosts to their living relatives and performs the occasional exorcism on ghosts that won’t take a hint. The Library of the Dead, by T.L. Huchu, is a grim read but enlivened by Ropa’s distinct Shona-Scots dialect and her fierce determination to protect the weak from the powerful.

Ropa plies her trade with the aid of a mbira, using its music to tune into the frequency of the various ghosts and revenants she encounters. (Listen on YouTube.) She is her only family’s hope, with a younger sister much too young to work even if Ropa would agree to let her drop out, and a grandmother who is nearly blind. Every bit of money she earns goes to keeping them fed, clothed, and sheltered in their caravan on a plot of rented land on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Because she’s underaged and home-taught, Ropa is barred from more lucrative work. Ropa keeps her energy firmly devoted to earning until her grandmother (who has a mysterious past as a magic worker of some kind that we see in short glimpses) pushes her into accepting a job from a ghost that cannot pay: trying to find this dead woman’s son, who might still be alive.

Once Ropa agrees to the job, the plot really starts to race and, before long, Ropa find herself in over her head with a secret society of magicians, a very sinister Milkman, a house that refuses to let its guests go, and lots of hints that whatever crime is going on is being directed by someone (something?) that terrifies its own devoted followers. Thankfully, even prickly Ropa managed to find some allies. After Ropa, my favorite character is Priya, a magician/botanist/healer with a supernaturally overpowered wheelchair. Priya provides magical knowledge that Ropa lacks and, when she has to, is a great person to have on your side in a fight. There is also Jomo, an old school friend of Ropa’s who is now a reluctant apprentice at the Library of the Dead (which I very much want to know more about). Jomo helps where he can, although he is hampered by the rules of the society.

I don’t want to give away too much of this book. Part of the fun is waiting to see how Ropa et al. are going to manage to get out of whatever caper they’ve landed in. Caper is probably the wrong word since the stakes are so high most of the time, but seems like the right one in the sense that Ropa just seems to fall into these things. The Library of the Dead is a high-octane adventure in an unfamiliar Edinburgh, with some of the most original characters and magic I’ve seen for a long time. Readers looking for something exciting and different will love this one.


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