The Library of Broken Worlds

I am annoyed with myself. I know how good Alaya Dawn Johnson is. I’ve really enjoyed some of her previous work. So I bought her latest book, and then put it aside because it is marketed as YA and I had lots of high-profile adult books to read. Consequently, until very recently, I did not get to what, in my humble opinion, is the best science fiction novel of 2023.

There are many reasons why a book gets marketed as YA. Sometimes it is a genuine coming-of-age novel. Sometimes it is just because the characters are mainly teenagers. And sometimes it is because the author is a woman. There is a certain amount of coming of age to be done by the main character in The Library of Broken Worlds, but she’s an AI inside a human teenage body, so I’m not sure the lessons are entirely appropriate for actual young adults.

But then there is all the other stuff. The Library of Broken Worlds is one of those books that will enthrall people who started books like The Shadow of the Torturer, or Gideon the Ninth, and thought to themselves, “I haven’t got a clue what is going on here, but it is fascinating so I’m going to keep reading to find out.” You have to work hard at books like this, just to keep up with the journey on which the author is taking you. I’m sure that some YA readers will love this book as much as I did. I’m equally sure that very many adults will put it aside because it is just too confusing and hard work.

So let’s try to give you an idea of what it is about. The Library of Broken Worlds is set in a universe where there are four important solar systems. There may be others, but if they have intelligent life it has not yet been contacted. One of those solar systems has worlds called Tierra (with its satellite, Luna) and Mars, so it might feel familiar to us. Another has Mahām with its satellite, Miuri. There is the third system with the world of Awilu. And finally there is a star around which revolves a constructed disk which is home to the great Library.

The various solar systems are linked by wormhole transits known as tesseracts. Each system is also home to at least one Material God. A material god is distinguished from a spiritual god in that it has an actual, physical existence and may be communed with.

The non-divine inhabitants of all four systems are described as humans, though it appears that humanoid life evolved separately on the three planetary systems.

Around 500 years ago, these worlds were engaged in a Great War. Eventually peace was declared, and a Treaty signed to ensure that no such conflict should ever happen again. The Library was created to be the guardian of the Treaty, and the place where inter-system disputes are resolved.

Our main character is Freida. As noted earlier, she is not entirely human, though she is indistinguishable from one from the outside. She is actually the daughter of Iemaja, one of the four Material Gods that reside in the Library system. No one knows why Iemaja decided to create a human-like child.

Freida has friends of her own physical age. Joshua is a young law student from Tierra. He belongs to an indigenous tribe from that planet whose ancestral lands are under threat from Lunar colonists. He has come to the Library in the hope of finding a legal argument to help his people. Atempa is the daughter of a powerful priest from Mahām. The Mahām god, Namaren, is particularly warlike and bloodthirsty, not to mention fanatically patriarchal. Atempa has come to the Library to spite her father. Finally there is Nergüi. She is a disciple of the Lighted Path, a spiritual religion based on Mirui. The Miuri people form an ethnic minority that is regularly oppressed by the Mahām. Nergüi has come to the Library seeking asylum in fear for her life.

There are two other important characters that we need to meet. Nadi is the Head Librarian. Ze is an Awilu, and a person of their third gender. (It is not explained whether this has a social or biological basis, and it is not relevant.) Nadi has adopted Freida, feeling that Iemaja must be up to something important. But having Freida as a ward is dangerous, because Nadi’s position is under threat from zer ambitious and corrupt rival, Quinn. Anything that Freida does that is controversial is liable to be used against Nadi. And Freida is nothing if not controversial.

Nadi still holds to the view that the duty of the Library is to defend the Treaty and the peace that it ensures. Quinn cares for nothing but wealth and power. Meanwhile the Mahām priests are rattling their sabres. Namaren is restless, they say, and demanding blood. To placate him they must declare a War Ritual, which is essentially a ritual sacrifice of large numbers of Miuri. It is necessary, they say, to maintain peace.

Then there is Joshua, and his search for a legal basis to defend his own people, which might just have implications for oppressed peoples elsewhere.

Hopefully you can see that this is an incredibly sophisticated political novel, but it is also one that has at its heart the mystery of Freida’s creation which, like Joshua’s legal case, can only be solved by digging into the remote past.

In her Author’s Note, Johnson notes, “The political conundrums philosophies, stories and histories in this novel are entirely fictional and not intended to represent modern human cultures, beliefs or conflicts.” This statement is in a similar vein to when Tolkien insisted that The Lord of the Rings is not “allegory”. What both authors mean is that there is not intended to be a one-to-one mapping of things in the book to things in the real world. This does not mean that the books are not relevant to the real world.

It should already be obvious that The Library of Broken Worlds has much to say about colonialism and the exploitation of indigenous peoples. But that is by no means all that it has to say.

The book is, for example, in conversation with the history of science fiction. In discussing the origins of the War Ritual, there is mention of Tierran history, before contact with the Awilu, when the Tierrans were using generation ships to flee the planet they had so thoughtlessly set on a path to environmental destruction.

“It started because the seed ship’s life systems were failing, and they claimed that some must die for the good of all. That was not true, but survival would have made their rigid social hierarchies unsustainable. So they sacrificed the ones whose philosophy threatened revolution. They continue to do so, for much the same reasons.”

I think you can all guess which famous SF story that is referencing, alongside the equally obvious attack on austerity politics.

Then there are issues relevant to current US politics:

“The Treaty enshrined two kinds of Freedom in the primary node; freedom from, a state of being unbound, and freedom to, a state of potential actualization.

At one point Johnson mentions a saying attributed to a famous Tierran philosopher. I’ll save you looking it up. It is Karl Marx.

There is also a subtle reference to the causes of Earthly climate change, but I can’t give you an example of that without a significant spoiler.

Not content with all that, Johnson reveals her story though the medium of myth. Not for nothing is the subtitle of the book, Daughter of the God of Stories, Writer of her own destiny. The various Material Gods each have a number of semi-autonomous avatars created to converse with humans, and each only has a partial grasp of actual history. They talk in stories, The skill of a Librarian is knowing what questions to ask of them, and how to interpret the answers.

In Freida’s case the most relevant story is that of the girl who finds herself working in a great bathhouse by a river, and who falls in love with a boy who is also a lizard. It is, as she admits in the Acknowledgements, the plot of Spirited Away. But it is a plot that is twisted and changed through multiple tellings over many years, and through many mouths. Johnson describes it as a series of jazz riffs on an original theme, which I think is a lovely way of putting it. It is also very reminiscent of the way in which literature worked in the ancient world, as explained by Helle in his discussion of the work of Enheduana.

I could talk way more about this book, but really you should just go read it yourselves. And also not worry when books are marketed as YA, because they can be every bit as sophisticated as the best adult novels, if not more so.

book cover
Title: The Library of Broken Worlds
By: Alaya Dawn Johnson
Publisher: Magpie
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
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