REVIEW: The Wren in the Holly Library by K.A. Linde

In K.A. Linde’s The Wren in the Holly Library, a monster-packed New York City provides the backdrop for a heist and a romance with an overlay of Celtic mythology. Unfortunately for me, the action-packed plot and charismatic leads struggled to transcend the novel’s overstuffed, ungrounded worldbuilding.

The Wren in the Holly LibraryAbandoned on the streets of a New York City decimated by monsters, Kierse is a skilled thief with a reckless streak. A robbery gone awry draws the attention of handsome, broody warlock Graves. Intrigued by Kierse’s apparent ability to evade his magical home security system, Graves hires her to steal a powerful spear from the vampire king of the monster underworld at a Winter Solstice party. As the solstice approaches and Kierse and Graves grow closer, his true motivations and Kierse’s true heritage are brought to light, both of which are intimately bound up in the thread of Celtic mythology that runs throughout the book. Slow to start, The Wren in the Holly Library gathers speed as it moves towards climax, with ample detours through rival gang wars, a sex pollen-fueled orgy, vampire brothels, and a trip to the Met.

No doubt there are plenty of readers who will revel in The Wren in the Holly Library’s maximalism. But although I admire the novel’s ambitious scope, Linde’s New York felt like a grab-bag of disparate tropes, rather than a three-dimensional world whose fantastical elements internally cohere.

The Wren in the Holly Library takes a “the more the merrier” approach to its monstrous bestiary, where wraiths and werewolves rub shoulders with Celtic gods and will-o-the-wisps. Linde’s approach works so long as the focus remains on Kierse and Graves, with all those assorted creatures and magic serving as a fantastical backdrop. There’s a great scene where Kierse cases a black market, packed with goblin bartenders and vampire heavies. Linde immerses us in an underworld teeming with magic and menace. It’s tense and effective, and it works best when we don’t linger too long on the details.

Where The Wren in the Holly Library flounders is in the moments when it moves beyond the personal and tries to give the larger monster-human conflict heft and consequence. Kierse has an appealingly eat-the-rich anger towards the upper classes whose lives have remained unchanged after the devastation of the Monster Wars. As a character note, her fury is compelling. But the longer I lingered on the details of the Monster Wars and its aftermath, the flimsier they became. The have-nots, those whose lives and livelihoods were devastated by the wars, have been essentially shunted into a Gangs of New York-style alternate reality where basically everyone works in a brothel and no one can afford a cellphone. It’s a world that exists to provide access to a cast of stock characters—the gruff madam with a heart of gold, the protective gang leader, the humans forced into vampiric sex work to pay their debts—and plot architecture rather than one that grows immanently from the circumstances that supposedly birthed it.

All of this added up to grittiness without a root cause, like a texture applied in Photoshop after the fact. I did find myself scratching my head less as Kierse became more fully ensconced in Graves’s world and the Celtic folklore began to take precedence over the urban fantasy. There’s something in the way of commentary there, though I don’t know if it’s on purpose: it’s amazing how much less the world’s problems bother you when you have ready access to money, magic, sex, or a combination of all three.

I suspect that many of The Wren in the Holly Library’s readers—especially those who look to worldbuilding for texture, rather than architecture—won’t be put off by the book’s moments of flimsy excess. They will appreciate Kierse as a dynamic character whose love for her friends and chosen family felt true-to-life. Linde’s handling of her trauma and difficulty trusting others is also well done. The relationship between Kierse and Graves is also well-handled. Though she’s a newcomer to his world, she isn’t treated as passive nor a wide-eyed naïf. Rather, Graves respects her as someone with her own set of unique skills and talents. Plus, the sex is pretty hot, and for a certain percentage of readers that’ll probably be enough in itself.

Ultimately, I suspect that The Wren in the Holly Library will rise or fall in its reader’s estimation depending almost entirely on whether they’re in it for the roman- or the -antasy. But Grimdark fans who prefer a little more grounding with their grit may find it hard going.

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Anneke Schwob

Anneke Schwob

Anneke is a lapsed academic, one-time robot impersonator, and lifelong enjoyer of the fantastic and horrible. Their fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons and Baffling Magazine. Anneke can most often be found on a rocky shoreline, a cursed bog, or online at annekeschwob.info. Technically, though, they live in Montreal.

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