Unbound is Jim C. Hines’ third book in his MAGIC EX LIBRIS series, and I had the same response I pretty much had to book two, which was that it is a light sort of fantasy which has issues that are somewhat, but not fully, balanced by the love of the genre evident in the storyline. I noted at the end of my review of book two, Codex Born, that I was worried about a sense of diminishing returns, and I think that is a bit realized here. Book four, Revisionary, has just arrived this year, and I’d say it’s good that it appears to be a concluding volume, though perhaps that should have come a book earlier.
MAGIC EX LIBRIS really needs to be read in order, so you shouldn’t read Unbound unless you’ve read the first two (also, that means there will be some spoilers for those books in this review). In that case, you’ll know the premise is that libriomancer magic allows its practitioners to pull objects out of books. Early on this was a limited sort of magic — the object had to, for instance, be of a size to come out of a book (so no Death Stars for you), and one had to carry lots of books around. It was also possible to overdo the magic at great potential harm to both book and magic-user. Finally, the founder of the Porters, Gutenberg, “locked” many texts, not trusting the power in them to those who came after him.
As the series has progressed, though, the magic has opened up. Either by now or in this book, people have found work-arounds for the size problem (main character Isaac, for instance, used a large device from an Asimov book by directing its “effect” rather than pulling the too-big machine out of the book); one character, Jeneta, can use an e-reader (meaning she has thousands of books — and their magic/science at her fingertips at all times); Gutenberg’s books get unlocked, and the Porters employ a program to sneak their own invented weapons/devices into books so that they can pull them out at need. I was already feeling that the magic had gotten too powerful in Codex Born, and that holds even more true here, especially at the conclusion. If you can turn off the part of your well-read brain that goes, “Why don’t they use ‘X’ from book ‘Y’?” this may not bother you. But I had a pretty hard time with it (think, for instance, of all the stories that employ magical wishes of some sort, or time travel devices, etc.). Granted, Hines does make an effort to explain some of those issues away, but I still had difficulty with this aspect.
Moving from premise to plot, Unbound picks up not too long after the cliffhanger ending of Codex Born, with Isaac, despite being expelled from the Libriomancers and stripped of his magic, fervently trying to rescue Jeneta, who had been taken by the being seemingly controlling the Devourers, the Big Bad of the prior books. Because he feels responsible for what happened to Jeneta, Isaac takes one huge desperate risk after another, throwing his life, and his relationships to Lena (his Dryad lover), Nidhi (his former therapist and Lena’s other lover), and some supernatural beings into chaos. Eventually he figures out who took Jeneta, and it all leads to a major confrontation, with stops along the way to deal with the potential obstacles of the Porters, the Devourers, and the Bi Sheng (the other magic-using group Gutenberg had tried to destroy 500 years ago). Meanwhile the Bi Sheng have let the cat out of the bag with regard to magic via a very public and very funny note in a George R.R. Martin book, and the Devourers don’t care that the public sees them and their acts. Which means the world is slowly awakening to the fact that magic is real and supernatural creatures such as vampires and werewolves live amongst them. This aspect is presented via a series of interchapters that take various forms — news clippings, social media posts, etc.
The plot is pretty fast moving, and mostly nicely balanced between lots of action and fight scenes and lots of research and smart people trying to figure out difficult questions. In fact, Hines’ willingness to show people doing actual research is something I greatly appreciate, along with Isaac’s love of libraries and of course, all the homage being done to genre texts throughout. That little frisson of fond recognition when a new device appears (“Hey, I know where that came from!”) makes for several nice moments throughout. Things did move too quickly and chaotically for me in the conclusion; I would have preferred either less going on or more pages devoted to what was going on. Either would have worked, but as it is, it feels a bit cluttered and rushed. And as mentioned above, the sudden ratcheting up of magic power robs the climax of some real suspense.
Isaac, has always felt too thin and shallowly conceived to me. Here he’s more tormented by remorse and grief, but I can’t say I really feel him as a particularly deep character even with that extra layer. Lena, in Codex Born, was more complex in her growth, but here she and really most of the other characters are relegated to mostly side roles, and though the women are strong and competent, they lack the sort of depth I usually look for. There was some good potential in the relationship between the two ancient sorcerers — Gutenberg and Ponce de Leon — but they too were sidelined too much. Similarly, the interchapters dealing with the world’s response to learning about magic’s presence (and its dangers) felt too removed, too lighthearted, at least until the very end, and that too seemed an area that could have been mined to more emotional and intense impact. That said, those who don’t mind their light fantasy to be, well, light, will probably find less fault.
I’ll continue on to finish the MAGIC EX LIBRIS series, but if it weren’t for my love of the genre, and Hines’, and the way our shared joy in science fiction and fantasy books (and books in general) meet in Unbound’s premise and occasional plot details, I’d find it hard to recommend the series. Especially as the problems (or my problem) with the magic premise grows cumulatively more troublesome. I wouldn’t have minded seeing this whole thing as a single book or maybe a duology, but four books is stretching the characters and premise a bit thin. On the other hand, they’re fast reads that reference beloved works, so the cost-benefit ratio isn’t so bad.