My experience with Jim Hines’s work has been limited to his PRINCESS series, which I thoroughly enjoyed. That series works in the “lighter” side of fantasy, but does so with a sharp intelligence and very strong characterization. Hines is now out with a new series, MAGIC EX LIBRIS, and judging by its introductory novel Libriomancer, this is going to be another winner.
If this were a Hollywood pitch, one might call Libriomancer a cross between Cornelia Funke’s INKWORLD trilogy. Jasper Fforde’s THURSDAY NEXT series, and Jim Butcher’s DRESDEN FILES. Like Funke’s world, the magic in Libriomancer involves “pulling” from books; like Fforde’s series, the world of any book is a separate physical manifestation that can be accessed by those few with the ability; and like Butcher’s popular series, the world is filled with all kinds of creatures that the common populace knows nothing about. There are, of course, differences; for instance, where in INKWORLD Mo and his daughter could read characters out of books, Libriomancers pull objects out of books.
The main character in Libriomancer is Isaac Vainio, a young member of the eponymous secret organization that regulates the magic — an organization created by the first Libriomancer, Johannes Gutenberg. When we first meet Isaac, he has been demoted from the field to a desk job cataloging books in a library in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It’s a bit dull, but things liven up when the library is attacked by three vampires (some vampires are natural, others are created via texts). Isaac only survives thanks to an early warning from his fire spider and the fortuitous arrival of Lena, an oak-tough dryad with an intriguing past. Soon Lena and Isaac are trying to track down whatever it is that has been killing both Libriomancers and vampires — a trail that may lead right to Gutenberg himself.
There are lots of reasons to enjoy Libriomancer. For some readers, including myself, one of the primary ones is that the book speaks directly to the fantasy/sci fi geek in us. When Isaac is in trouble, when he needs a weapon or tool, he gets it from the books he carries with him like portable armories. And because he’s a fantasy/sci fi fan, the tools he uses are instantly, joyfully recognizable to many of us. And when he doesn’t identify the source, he allows us the opportunity to play “I Can Name that Book in . . .” A shield that protects against projectile weapons but lets slow moving items, like a sword, through? Anyone? Anyone? Buehler? So as we race along through the plot with Isaac and Lena, we get to make lots of little side trips down memory lane as Isaac uses an artifact from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; The Road to Oz, A Wrinkle in Time, and so on. And of course, in our spare time separate from the plot, we’re coming up with all the tools we as readers think would be better suited for his needs: “Really, Isaac? That’s what you’re going with? Why not pull out . . .”
Of course, the “why not” gets into the whole question of limits and Hines is smart enough to make sure the magic is limited. Probably the most constraining rule is that the objects have to actually fit through the “window” of a book. So no Death Stars for you (Hines is actually doubly clever here because he also has an explanation for why one can’t just print/copy a really big book). The other big constraint is that the Gutenberg has “locked” some books, so no Sauron’s Ring either (nice try). Because the book world is nearly infinite, the magic can still be a bit problematic, but I think Hines pretty much does his duty with the premise, allowing the reader to accept and move on.
But not too easily, because one of the other strong aspects of the novel is the way Hines explores the responsibilities inherent with the great power embedded in such magic. The best example of this is the book-long consideration of Lena’s nature as a character that had been created to serve someone else’s needs, even to the point of physical changes in her body. Here is Lena herself explaining it to Isaac:
“The book was called Nymphs of Neptune… There were twenty-four nymphs… 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 is what I am. I can’t change that. And there are a lot of people out there who, well, their fantasies aren’t something I ever intend to become.”
That’s a pretty dark concept for a “light” fantasy, and it isn’t the only moral/ethical complexity explored in Libriomancer, a layering of depth that enhances rather than detracts from the lighter elements.
As one might guess, then, Lena is one of the more interesting characters. Actually, I’d say she’s the most interesting one. Isaac is likable, but so far I can’t say there a lot there for the reader to hang on to. Other characters are relatively sketchy, probably mostly due to the book’s brevity (right at about 300 pages, nearly a short story in today’s fantasy market) and the breakneck pace. While most slide by and are quickly forgotten, a few do manage to stand out (such as a blood-sniffing vampire) or promise some intriguing future meetings (Gutenberg, Ponce de Leon).
The pace, as mentioned, is very fast; I read Libriomancer in a single sitting. It’s not a single speed, however. Hines does a nice job of balance, moving us between highly tense scenes (fight scenes, hostage scenes, hand on detonator scenes) and more quiet, introspective ones (Isaac pondering Lena’s position, wondering if the organization he’s devoted his life to isn’t what he thought it was). The plotting holds one’s interest throughout as we follow Isaac and Lena, wanting to know both how this world/organization works and who the villain is. And the major plot points are resolved while leaving lots of room for the follow-up books, so Libriomancer can be easily read as a simple stand-alone despite being the first in a series. Finally, while it’s quite often a funny book, it’s more a warm chuckle kind of funny than a laugh-out-loud kind. In fact, “warm” is a word that pretty much encapsulates the novel —there’s a pervasive fondness and warmth for libraries, for readers, for science fiction/fantasy fans, for the “geeks” of the world.
Libriomancer may not be a great book, but it’s certainly a solidly good one (with potential for better) and I just can’t help but be swayed by that warmth, that sense of camaraderie, that discovery of someone “just like me.”
It’s sort of like watching the moving van pull into the driveway next to yours and watching the movers walk down the ramp carrying the big red single-volume version of LOTR, a light sabre, a box of Dungeons & Dragons figurines, and a model Tardis. “I’m gonna like this kid,” you think to yourself. Or as Hines himself, via Isaac says:
Every libriomancer I had ever met had one thing in common: we were daydreamers… Night after night I had lain awake pondering whether heat vision could be pin-pointed with enough accuracy to kill a mosquito, or whether a lightsaber could be modified to recharge via a regular AC outlet…
Yep, I like this guy.
The cover of the mass market paperback of Jim C. Hines’s book Libriomancer is pure cheese. Do not let that deter you. The book is a wealth of fast-paced fun for fans of magic, fantasy and books.
Isaac Vainio is a libriomancer, a magician who can reach into books and manifest objects that are described in them. Isaac works for a global magical group called The Porters, who guard magical gateways across the world. The Porters were founded by Johannes Gutenberg, the father of moveable type, and the first libriomancer. When the book opens, Isaac has been benched from fieldwork, working at a mundane library and cataloging potentially dangerous objects from stories into the Porter database. He is attacked by three shiny vampires who can walk around during the day. Isaac barely escapes, mostly with the help of Lena, a motorcycle-riding dryad who has lost her tree. From there, the action mounts as various vampire groups attack the Porters, vampires themselves come under attack and the nearly-immortal Gutenberg disappears.
The book takes place in Michigan, mostly in the Upper Peninsula. Hines creates a strong sense of place, not only in the U.P as it’s called, but in Detroit, most powerfully in an abandoned factory.
A lot happens in Libriomancer, and a lot of it happens quickly, but I felt like there was very little forward momentum in the book until Isaac and Lena got to the campus of Michigan State University. Hines throws characters and dilemmas at us fast and furious in the first fifty pages and it was a little too much. Isaac has been removed from fieldwork because of something he did in the past. He claims that this event made him face up to his own arrogance, but he hasn’t done much to curb it since then. He is a glib character, and “Vainio” is an appropriate last name. It’s not bragging, though, if you can deliver, and Isaac mostly delivers in this first volume. The one exception is with his magical pet, the fire-spider Smudge. Smudge is a great familiar, and Isaac would do well to pay attention to what Smudge tries to communicate to him. The first time he ignores Smudge’s actions is early in the book, and it’s new to the reader, so we forgive him; the second time, Isaac merely looks stupid.
Hines manages to keep the story moving while squeezing in a powerful amount of exposition and backstory. That’s not easy to do, and Hines’s balance is close to perfect. Any reader will love this story for the way Hines plays with books, mixing real titles with imaginary ones; using artifacts we all recognize, some in unusual ways (the babel-fish from Douglas Adams get special treatment here). Lena’s origin story is original. It gives her an unusual character problem to deal with and Lena’s solution is ingenious. Other characters, notably Isaac’s boss Nicola Pallas, who is trying to successfully cross-breed dogs with chupacabras, provide darkly-lined comic relief.
What was missing for me for most of this book was a sense of the, well, the magic of the magic. In the early Harry Dresden books, there is a real sense of strangeness when Harry mixes his whacky potions. When Matthew Swift in Kate Griffin’s urban sorcerer novels conjures up a powerful spell from the fine print on the back of an Underground ticket, it feels as if the world slips sideways for a minute; as if words and symbols do have meaning, and we don’t always know what all those meanings are. In a book about the magic of books, the magic of words, I would expect to have that feeling more strongly, and it isn’t here for me until Isaac and Lena begin studying one of Gutenberg’s automatons, two-thirds of the way through the book. Isaac uses the magic in a formulaic, mundane manner, as if he’s designing a character in a role-playing game. Isaac’s explanation of how artifacts in books get power (based on the belief and audience of the book) is plausible in this magical system — and leads to some fine jokes about the HARRY POTTER books — but seems to trip up the plot twist at the end. The villain wrote his own book. He self-published, but hid it, largely so that the Porters would not find it. Books that are hidden, that no one reads or believes in, should not be able to juice an artifact as powerful as the one the villain created, if I understand the magic here correctly. Isaac makes an offhanded comment that the villain got the book into the hands of true-believers, but he can’t explain how. This seems to undermine Hines’s entire magical system.
I felt like Libriomancer was DRESDEN FILES Lite, but I still kept the light on past midnight to finish it. Isaac and Lena are characters I cared about and Gutenberg (and Pallas) are interesting. Because I didn’t feel any connection to the magic, I am giving this book three and a half stars instead of four, but I would still happily recommend it to any of my fantasy-reading friends.