Mostly Magical, But It Fizzles Too – A Review of Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

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The saying “books are magical” might be viewed by many as a tired old phrase, a truism that’s worn itself out from constant use. Many, many people know this to be true, so why repeat it? The fact remains, though, that for readers, this worn-out cliche rings very true indeed, which is why it has never really fallen out of favor, and why it’s a sentiment that gets brought up and time and time again whenever people talk about books and the reading habit. And for readers, a book is literally magic: a portal capable of taking them away from wherever they are at the current moment; a doorway to new knowledge; a way to live lives other than one’s own. If that isn’t magic, then I don’t know what is.

The ancients thought of books – and the act of creating them – as a magical, almost divine, process. Many ancient cultures believes that the act of putting down ephemeral spoken language and thoughts into a solid and, more importantly, permanent form was an act that paralleled the powers of the gods, a belief which carries into the three monotheistic religions of today: “The Word made flesh” is a phrase with powerful resonance across Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

But what if books were far more magical than ordinary readers thought? What if books were literally portals, into which a gifted few could reach and pull out whatever they so chose? What if books could give birth to the creatures within them? And what if the characters within them were far more alive than any reader could have ever imagined?

That’s the world of the Magic Ex Libris series created by Jim C. Hines, and explored in the first novel of the series, Libriomancer. Isaac Vainio is a Porter: a member of a secret society that consists mostly of libriomancers like Isaac, though it has other kinds of magic-users within its ranks. At the beginning of the novel Isaac has been forced off the field, after his last field mission went completely haywire and the higher-ups have decided it might be safer for him to do desk work than risk having him out there doing more mayhem. It’s been quiet for a while, but that peace is shattered when a couple of vampires – including a sparkler, more properly called Sanguinarius Meyerii (three guesses which book the vampire comes from, and the first two don’t count) – attack him at the library he’s currently working at. This leads to a chain of events wherein Isaac finds out that all is not quite well in the Porter world, and likely he’s the only one standing between the organization that rendered him powerless, and a threat that could destroy not just the Porters, but the entire world.

So far, so standard, at least for most urban fantasy novels. With regards to the plot, at any rate, Libriomancer is pretty much par-on-course: a supernatural/magical threat looms over the world, and it’s up to the protagonist and her/his friend/s and/or colleagues to stop it before the secret of magic/supernatural creatures leaks out into the mundane world and causes even more havoc. This similarity to other urban fantasy novels, is, however, forgivable, because it’s not the plot that keeps most of us fans of the genre reading: it’s more about the world-building, and of course the characters. Fortunately, Libriomancer has some pretty sturdy world-building, and some good characters – though it isn’t without its problems.

The characters are, for the most part, a fun bunch to hang out with. Isaac in particular is interesting, and this is a good thing: the novel is told in first-person, and if Isaac were intolerable it’d be difficult to get through the rest of the novel without wanting to chuck the thing across the room in frustration and annoyance. Thankfully, he isn’t irritating to listen to at all: he has a good sense of humor – not quite as sharp as Peter Grant’s from Ben Aaranovitch’s Peter Grant series, but just as fun nevertheless. Isaac also has the amusing tendency to get lost in spinning out ideas and questions while in the midst of a crisis, which inevitably forces his companion to snap him out of his thoughts so he can focus on the task at hand.

Isaac’s companion in this whole adventure is Lena, a hamadryad, specifically a Balanos hamadryad, since her tree is an oak. However, Lena isn’t what one would call a “natural” hamadryad, meaning that she is a true mythological creature that has existed in the world for thousands of years. Instead, she’s a magical construct from a book, pulled out by some anonymous libriomancer, likely one who was not aware of his or her talents. Now, while Isaac mentions that it’s impossible to pull anything out of a book that’s bigger than the book itself, Lena explains that she came out as an acorn, which fell to the ground and then grew until she popped out of it. She is in many ways the kind of female character I enjoy reading about: kick-ass and no-nonsense, thinking sensibly through crises and making sure Isaac doesn’t really do anything supremely stupid. She does, however, present one particular aspect that makes me blink and raise my eyebrow – the primary reason why both I and Hope were pulled up short by this thing.

In the novel, Lena explains that she comes from a pulpy and very questionable sci-fi/fantasy novel, wherein nymphs like her must – emphasis on must – attach themselves to a lover, or else they die. Once they do so, they shape themselves to become exactly what their lover wants – and the nymph has no choice in this matter, because it’s in their nature. When she drops this bomb on Isaac she says this because she assumes that Nidhi is already dead, and though she gives Isaac time to think it over, she puts him in the most uncomfortable position of taking her as a lover, or leaving her to die. Lena’s behavior is something both Hope and I find rather skeezy, to say nothing of the basic idea of a female character who has no choice but to take a lover and shape herself to that lover in order to survive, but what bothers me even more is that the novel from which Lena comes from isn’t even a real novel: it was one that was made up specifically for this story by Hines. I can’t speak for Hope, who has a better head for this sort of thing than I do, but even I find that very troubling and rather insulting. I find romance interesting enough, even for something that’s not a paranormal romance, but couldn’t Lena have just been a strong, sensible female character with magical origins, without any of this “lover or die” business? She would still have been an interesting character even without that particular character trait.

Aside from that particular wrinkle, the world of Libriomancer is fascinating, intriguing, and solidly-built. The ground rules laid down for libriomancy are pretty clear-cut, but with enough space in between for playing around – mostly because there’s a lot about magic that even the libriomancers don’t understand. This makes sense, because magic isn’t something anyone is really supposed to understand completely: some people may understand it more than others, (in the case of the Porters, that would be their founder, Johannes Gutenberg – yes, that Gutenberg), but even the experts can come across parts of magic that they either didn’t know was there, or which are simply beyond their understanding. What is understood of it, though, is carefully monitored and policed – sometimes with unfortunate results. All of this makes for a cohesive, well-built world, and in urban fantasy, as with other kinds of fantasy, the world-building is usually half the battle, and Hines has done a marvelous job with his.

Overall, Libriomancer is a fun yarn, set in a world that will have many avid readers side-eyeing their libraries and wondering if, just maybe, they’re actually latent libriomancers after all. Isaac is a pretty good character, with a great storytelling voice that will let the reader slide into the Hines’ world with no problems at all. The plot might be pretty standard for the genre, but the action is well-paced and pretty exciting, striking a great balance between introducing the world and making that world both dangerous and desirable. On the other hand, though, Lena’s characterization will leave a rather sour taste in readers’ mouths, especially once that complication regarding lovers and survival comes into play. It’s rather sad that this potential deal-breaker should appear in an otherwise fun novel, but there it is. Given the ending of the novel, it’s certain said complication will play into succeeding novels, but hopefully Hines won’t put such a spotlight on it now that the first novel’s already explained it away.

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