Codex Born is Jim Hines’ follow-up to last year’s Libriomancer, his breezy love letter to fantasy and science fiction readers and writers. While the sequel didn’t charm me as much as its precursor, its quick pace, likable characters, and frequent allusions to some of my favorite authors, along with Hine’s trademark darkness underlying a lightly comical surface, meant that on balance I found more to enjoy than to dislike.
The series is set in a world where certain people — libriomancers — have the ability to magically pull objects, such as ray guns, rings of invisibility, etc., out of written works. For centuries, this magic has been regulated by a secret organization headed by the first Libriomancer (though that gets called into question in this novel), Johannes Gutenberg. Besides studying/regulating/restricting this book magic, Libriomancers also intervene when necessary to keep the normal run of humanity ignorant of the fact that they live alongside a host of other creatures, such as werewolves, vampires, and wendigos.
In fact, it is the murder of a wendigo, reported by a pair of werewolves, that initiates the plot in Codex Born. Isaac Vainio, the young Libriomancer researcher who narrated Libriomancer, is called in to investigate, along with his girlfriend Lena the Dryad and her girlfriend (it’s complicated), the psychiatrist Nidhi Shah. Soon, their investigation pits them not only against the wendigo’s murderer (who has inside information about the Libriomancer organization), but also against a group of Libriomancers from the other side of the world that Gutenberg thought he’d destroyed centuries ago. Even more frightening is that behind these two opponents might lie something even more dangerous — the mysterious dark force known as the Devourers which seems to desire nothing less than to consume everything.
My favorite aspect of Libriomancer had been the magical premise and how it allowed Hines to namedrop books and authors, or how, when a Libriomancer pulled an object out of an unnamed book, we the reader get to play “Name That Book!” So here in Codex Born we get to feel a bit of reading nostalgia when Isaac uses a machine from Isaac Asimov’s classic short story “The Dead Past,” in order to “see” how the wendigo was murdered, or chuckle in fond recognition at the little fish that swims in Isaac’s brain and translates all languages for him. For those allusions we don’t get, Hines is kind enough to offer us a listing of sources in the back (even more kindly, he marks those he simply made up). Hines doesn’t limit his references to science fiction/fantasy either, but offers up some Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, among others. But while I still enjoyed these moments, they didn’t quite have the freshness of when I’d encountered this premise in book one.
The other problem was that the more I see the libriomancer ability at work, the more I start to wonder about its power. In Libriomancer, Hines had limited it, somewhat successfully, by requiring that the objects pulled out of books had to physically fit the “window” of the book itself. But in Codex Born, Isaac finds some ways around that, meaning the magic becomes quite powerful. One concrete example of how this can dilute tension is how easily Isaac can heal himself or others, by simply reaching into a book with a healing spring or healing food or potion or pill and the list goes on. This was somewhat of nagging background thought in Libriomancer, but the more one sees in this magic in action, the more one starts to think of even more powerful small objects in books and then starts to wonder “couldn’t they just…” That said, Hines does try to counterbalance the problem by having the magic able to be negated at times.
Isaac, as a main character, is a likable and appealing narrator, but remains a bit light, maybe a little too thin. In my review of Libriomancer, I’d said that Lena was the most interesting character due to the complicating factor that she was “created” as a character in a book and pulled into this world, and that she remains bound by her author’s premise — that she becomes whatever her lover wishes: “our surface appearance changed, depending on the desires of our lovers… Central to a nymph’s nature is the inability to refuse her lover.” This raised a lot of moral questions in the first book and while those questions remain, in Codex Born, Lena and her nature also become central to the plot, as their enemies not only target Lena but seek to use her abilities to their own ends. With her playing such a pivotal role, Hines has chosen to flesh out her character by interrupting the realtime narrative with several sections from Lena’s POV detailing her past history up to and including the events of Libriomancer. On the one hand, these sections deepen Lena’s character and add some heft and depth to the adventure storyline, allowing Hines to explore issues of gender, sexuality, objectification of women, and the like. For instance, here is Lena during a moment of painful self-examination:
But I’m not really a person, am I? My hair, my skin, my favorite flavor of ice cream, everything about me was a reflection of her… I was a fantasy. I had more in common with the airbrushed centerfold of a men’s magazine than I did with a real human being… Hours later, I was sitting amidst a circle of her comic books. Ridiculously clothed women stared up at me from the pages, bodies contorted into bone-bending poses that better displayed their exaggerated curves… In one panel, [Catwoman’s] breasts straining to burst from her leather bodysuit were larger than her head, and her waist was thinner than her neck.
On the other hand, the writing seemed flatter in many of Lena’s sections and at times the criticism felt a little obvious or too blunt.
The plot of Codex Born, while mostly fast-paced, also at times felt a bit jumbled or chaotic, and I wonder if Hines squeezed a little too much into a relatively brief book. Though the fact that it feels so brief even though it comes in at just over 300 pages (and yes, I do recognize that is almost Twitter-like brevity compared to most fantasy novels nowadays) is testament to Hines’ smooth, easy-going prose and voice. I wouldn’t have minded another 50-75 pages to let some of the story breathe a bit more. As it is, some events and characters come and go too quickly (for instance, I would have really liked to have spent more time in the Chinese past, as the all-too-short glimpse we get of a scene there is some of the best writing in the book). The romance/sex moments are few and far between and mercifully brief (I’d be just as happy without them at all), but I should probably note that there is the occasionally graphic reference to body parts, so probably not the best book to hand to your nine-year-old.
Codex Born resolves the major plot conflict, but the overall arc of the Devourers, introduced in Libriomancer and becoming more front and center here, remains open, and in fact, leads to a bit of a cliffhanger ending. I’m curious to see where that arc goes, and I certainly wouldn’t mind spending more time with Isaac as he paws through some of my favorite works of fiction and non-fiction to pull out some necessary object. But based on my response to Codex Born, I’m thinking there is going to be a bit of a diminishing return in that regard, so I’m hoping Hines has a series’ end clearly in sight, one that is on the horizon and that will take us only one, or no more than two, books to arrive at.
Codex Born is the second book in Jim C. Hines’s MAGIC EX LIBRIS series, featuring the libriomancer Isaac Vainio. In the first book we learned about Hines’s delightful magical system in which gifted people can materialize objects out of books — mostly famous or well-beloved books. In the first book, Libriomancer, part of the pleasure was watching Hines name-check classic science fiction and fantasy books, and that joy continues in Codex Born.
This book also takes some time to develop the character of Lena Greenwood, a dryad who isn’t a real dryad. Each chapter opens with a section in Lena’s point of view, giving us scenes from her past. It’s helpful, and humanizes someone who was basically a magical sidekick in book one. These sections take the form of journal entries, and one of them, a poem, is lovely.
This story, though, is primarily about evil entities called The Devourers making their way into our world, with some catastrophic consequences for Isaac and his friends. Along the way, Isaac meets a group of ancient Chinese magicians who used a version of libriomancy different from the European-based magic that Johannes Gutenberg invented and still controls today, because, yes, Gutenberg is still around, running things. Five hundred years ago, Gutenberg went to war with the Chinese libriomancers. The more Isaac finds out about them, the more he begins to question Gutenberg’s version of events.
Codex Born ends on a cliff-hanger. The book has several large action sequences that are really fun — in one scene, Isaac fights a metal dragon the size of a bus, and in another sequence a libriomancer holds villains at bay with decidedly non-magical implements.
Toni Warwick stood uphill on the broken concrete foundation of the water tower. She appeared to be holding off a small swarm of bugs with a drinking straw and a yo-yo.
This type of whimsy, and the party-game aspect of guessing what Isaac will call out of which book, keeps the fun alive in this book, although I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did the first one. I have a problem with Isaac that I can’t quite identify, but I think it’s that his breezy first-person narration sometimes seems shallow, especially when he’s talking about the destruction of his home town and the death of friends. Isaac says all the right things but there is not much emotional affect. Probably the most honest emotion we see is characterized by Isaac’s pet fire-spider Smudge.
I did think that structural errors created some of the problems here. Hines juggles two sets of villains and serious questions about the nature of magic, in a fairly short book. He introduces a critical character in the beginning of the story, then sends her off-page while the action happens. Part of this is an appropriate response — the character, Jeneta, is only fourteen. Hines tries to keep the earlier character in our minds, but we are never reminded that she is important. Even when Isaac calls to make sure that, no matter what, that character is safe, he doesn’t speak to her directly. He leaves a message with a camp counselor. Thus, the necessary epilogue, which switches focus back to Jeneta, feels tacked-on and after-thoughtful. This would have worked much better if we had seen Isaac find out, in real time, what happened to her.
Once or twice in this book Hines resorts to wince-inducing prose. I’m a little disappointed by that because normally his prose is smooth and light. I think these mistakes — the most cringe-worthy, used not once but twice in a twenty page span, is when Lena “managed a pale smile” — are early draft artifacts that should be caught by editorial staff. Are there any more editors these days? Any second readers? Anyone? Hello?
This book ends with characters in jeopardy, ensuring that I will read the next book, Unbound, but Codex Born is not managed as well as its predecessor, and I worry that this series may be running out of steam. Or maybe ink.
I loved this book! A must read for anyone looking to escape the ordinary day in/day out life.
continued…..Easy to read, a flowing story, does not drag. Not necessary to read Libriomancer first.