A World of Curiosities (Armand Gamache #18) by Louise Penny
Date published: November 29, 2022
Date read: November 30, 2022
I have a rule: I don’t give 5 stars to series books. If a book is part of a larger series, I believe it needs to be judged on its merits and that of its fellow books. The highest I will go is 4.5 stars.
So, how did we get here?
I’m not alone in loving Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache books. I’ve loved all but one (and that one I liked), so the bar was understandably high here. The thing is that this book didn’t just meet the bar. It blew the bar out of the water.
This is Louise Penny’s best book—and what sort of series writer throws in their best book as the 18th entry? Probably the most amazing thing, and I believe the reason this book is so phenomenal, is that it is a book that wasn’t supposed to exist. Penny had told her publishers that, after releasing two books in 2021, she would not release one in 2022. And then inspiration hit.
There are so many elements that create the magic of this book. Penny gives us the Jean-Guy Beauvoir/Armand Gamache origin story. Their relationship is one of the strongest in this series made up of relationships and seeing where it began was a treat for the reader. What is interesting is that Penny resists the common trick of inserting a prequel in a long-running series. Instead, she uses this origin story as the jumping-off point for a current-day mystery-thriller that will keep you turning the pages.
It took me a while to realize this next speck of magic, but Penny did another amazing thing. Armand Gamache has long been a paragon of integrity, but here Penny digs in and finds one of his faults and explores that fault, which is at the center of this story. No, Gamache doesn’t become the big bad—he’s human, and it has always been his humanity that has been his greatest strength. But, like all humans, he has his weak points, and true evil can find those points.
The greatest strength of this book is the plotting. I read a lot of mysteries, including the classics of the genre. I can confidently say this is the best-plotted mystery I have ever read. I won’t go into specifics to avoid spoilers, but I will say that I could not put this down, and the “reveal” was the experience that I always look for in a mystery and rarely find.
While this is Penny’s best book in the series, it is also the darkest. In addition, to the usual darkness found in these novels, there is an early element of child sexual abuse. This is not shown on the page, but it is written so that the reader knows exactly what happened. In fact, the first introduction of it is so creepy that it sets the tone for the rest of the book.
Despite that darkness, or maybe because of it, this book rises above the seventeen that precede it—forcing me into a conundrum. This is a 5-star book, but I don’t give 5 stars to series books…right?
I tried to find a reason to knock a half-point off. The closest I could come to was that there is a series-long character who is essentially absent from the story. The character is conveniently “on vacation.” I felt a bit cheated that one of my favorites was missing. Then I realized that this character couldn’t be involved in this story: not only would it not make sense in the grand scheme, but it might also add an unnecessary layer of complication over an already complex story.
So, what to do? Should I try and manufacture a shortcoming? Should I knock off half a star “just because”? I struggled with this before realizing that a book this special deserves an exception to my personal rules. Five stars it is. And it deserves every single one of those stars.