(Disclaimer: English is my second language, so I want to apologize in advance for there may be mistakes in the text below. If you find any, please let me know so that I can correct it. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.)
Review Soundtrack: I suggest that you read this review while listening to Every little thing she does is magic by The Police (Spotify, Youtube).
What if being a librarian was the most dangerous job in the world? This is the first sentence of the synopsis of Worldsoul by Liz Williams and I knew that I had to read the novel from the moment that I saw it.
After reading the description, I was expecting a story about books and magic. It turned that I was right about the latter, but not about the former. One of the main locations in of the novel is, indeed, the Library of Worldsoul (a magical city between Earth and the Liminality, the dimension where stories live). However, magical books and books of magic are not so prominent in Worldsoul as I was anticipating, and I confess that it was a bit of a let down for me.
Nonetheless, the novel has some very interesting elements and I quite enjoyed reading it after my initial disappointment. For instance, The Liminality in general and the city of Worldsoul in particular, are wonderfully rich, imaginative and exotic. The Four Quarters, The Magic Library, The Citadel... are evocative and full of sense of wonder. A splendid background for an intriguing story of treason, treachery and plots within plots.
Another appealing aspect is the use of elements from many different mythologies that rarely appear in modern fantasy. For instance, Norse and Arabic gods and creatures such as the Disir or the Djinns. The mixture of magic and modern technologies (and even a bit of steampunk) is also very interesting. In Worldsoul we find, for instance, talking swords but also sigilometers (think of Geiger counters for magic), monorails, binoculars and airships. However, how all these things came to be is never explained and I really wish it would have been explored in more detail. Something similar happens with the promising idea of the storyways, magical roads between realms and also secret passages inside the Worldsoul:
Stories don't always reflect the world; they make it, too. A book is a world inside the world, and sometimes there are worlds within that. A galaxy in a speck of sand; suns in a water drop.
One of the main themes of the book is change. The Skein, former rulers of Worldsoul, have left without notice, causing a power vacuum and a lot of unrest. This is clearly reflected in the changes of the city of Worldsoul itself, in a very evocative manner:
You could walk in the morning to find a whole new block, the city rearranging itself around the incomer and then settling back into place as though the addition had always been there.
The book, however, has some important problems. I don't usually complain about novels being too short, but in the case of Worldsoul too many things happen at once, sometimes making it difficult for the reader to follow the story. Also, the characters could have used a little more development and the idea of the storyways is clearly underexplored. Hopefully, these problems will be tackled if a sequel to the novel is published in the future because this universe sure shows a lot of promise.
All in all, Worldsoul is a good book with some evident flaws that prevent it from fully exploiting the many potentials of the initial premise.