Jim C. Hines has been publishing novels with DAW consistently, about a book a year since his debut novel Goblin Quest was published by DAW in 2006. Six years later, Jim has made the leap as Libriomancer, his 8th novel (and first in the Magic ex Libris series) is promoted to hardcover. This is also the first Jim C. Hines novel I’ve read; it won’t be my last and it proves a smart move by DAW to give Jim the Hardcover treatment with this novel.
The conceit of this novel is one that is elegant in its relative simplicity and surprising that Jim seems to be the first to make it the core of a novel, let alone a full series. The conceit is this – libriomancy is the magical ability to reach into books and pluck out things described therein. Need a healing potion, grab a Dungeons and Dragons novel, need a powerful blaster, pull a Science Fiction novel. The protagonist here is Isaac Vainio a librarian who also secretly catalogues books of magic for Die Zwelf Portenære, the porters who guard the magical texts. Isaac has been taken out of the field due to an error in judgment during a mission and relegated to a desk job. The Portenære was started by the first known Libriomancer Johannes Gutenberg, the man who as history points out invented the printing press. Very quickly and with just a few hints, Hines establishes (1) a really cool magic system and (2) a long history of said magic system. Good foundation for stories, but what about the plot/novel itself?
Told in the first person (like the majority of Urban Fantasies), Jim wastes little time in getting the ball rolling. While Isaac is cataloguing books at the Copper River Library, a group of Sanguinarius Meyerii, “informally known as sparklers” (vampires conjured through Stephenie Meyers’s Twilight novels) comes blasting through, attacking Isaac. The library is damaged and in the fight, Isaac is assisted by his pet fire-spider Smudge and last minute aid from Lena Greenwood, a nymph. (Readers of Jim’s fiction might also recognize Smudge from a certain set of novels about a goblin.) Isaac soon realizes the Porters are being targeted; especially when he discovers his mentor Ray is killed. Lena’s lover, Dr. Nidhi Shah, the psychiatrist who helps libriomancers keep their sanity after they expend energy to draw out objects from books, is also missing and a hostage of the vampires. She’s an easy target since she likely knows many of the Porter’s secrets.
What ensues is something of a road trip as Lena and Isaac search for Dr. Shah, the vampires, Gutenberg (who has gone missing and is presumed dead), and the culprit behind the deaths and disappearances of Isaac’s colleagues. Along the way, Isaac’s trust in his superiors and some of his peers wears thin and he and Lena find themselves quite attracted to each other. Isaac discovers more than he expected to learn about Lena and he also begins to consider the true nature of the magic of libriomancy.
As other reviewers have noted, Libriomancer is in many ways a lovingly crafted tribute to the pure joy of reading and books in general, and fantasy/science fiction in specific. There are also a couple of winks and nudges to the business of publishing not the least of which is the individual who turns out to be the villain of the novel. While the novel is indeed a great deal of fun, I can’t not level some criticism as it could also bee seen to be somewhat self indulgent. After all, haven’t we as fantasy and science fiction readers always dreamed of wielding Excalibur? The attraction between Lena and Isaac also seems a bit of a Marty Stu move, Lena is described as being extremely attractive/sexy and hardwired for subservience. Since Lena was plucked from a book, and in that book she was described as something of a sex slave, breaking away from that nature is really not possible. Jim is a smart enough writer to use such a move as an invitation for more in-depth consideration of the subject. That having been said, those elements only scratched at what is otherwise a very shiny, solid novel and specifically Lena’s character as much more than just a typical dream woman. Also scratching only at the surface is the depth at which Jim is hinting for this wonderfully imagined milieu.
Libriomancer is an engaging, quickly paced novel that doesn’t shy away from examining the deeper elements that make up the whole of the novel (Gutenberg’s true intentions and nature, the problems of a large secretive organization overseeing something extremely powerful, the moral ambiguity of whether one should take advantage of a creature created specifically to serve). What a lot of this proves is that Jim C. Hines is a very smart, careful writer and one whose fiction I’ve overlooked far too long. Even if he doesn’t provide hard and fast answers though the characters to the questions raised, he handles everything with a great deal of dignity, and more importantly, honesty. Libriomancer may just be one of the more fun novels published in 2012; a novel that also possess a strong vein of intelligence throughout. I also thought the bibliography of books (real and imagined) of Isaac’s arsenal was a nice touch. I really want to see where Jim next takes these characters and to read how he builds on this extremely solid and sound foundation in future Magic ex Libris novels.
© Rob H. Bedford