There is something special about books and reading. The ability to transport a reader into another world, into the lives of characters is a very powerful thing. One might even go so far as to say that reading and books are a form of magic.
For Isaac Vainio, that magic is literal. He is, or to be more precise, was, a libriomancer, a member of a secret organization founded by Johannes Gutenberg (yes, that Gutenberg) of people who can work with the magic of books and the things and beings that they invoke. Retired from the field as an active agent, Isaac works in the Copper River library in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with Smudge, a fire spider holdover from his days as an active libriomancer. His job is merely as a cataloguer, now, a job that easily fits in with his mundane duties at the library. But when book-birthed vampires show up on his doorstep looking for a piece of him, and the hint that the entire organization is similarly under attack, Isaac’s low key and quiet life are about to change, radically.
It’s time for Isaac to be a field man again. And, as any good researcher, in the process of discovering what is happening, Isaac is going to uncover long hidden secrets about his profession. Dangerous secrets.
Such is the matter of Libriomancer, the first novel in a new series from Jim Hines. The book is written in a first person POV, giving us a very personal and focused view of the world through Isaac’s eyes.
There is a lot to like in Libriomancer. Since character is important to my reading these days, we’ll start with the characters. Vainio has been well designed to be an appealing protagonist. He’s a librarian, a magician, and even more to the point, he is extremely well versed in geek culture. Vainio knows the science fiction and fantasy genres, and through him, the book is replete with geeky references. He loves Doctor Who and Firefly, his desk job in the Die Zwelf Portenaere is keeping tracking of new science fiction and fantasy and for any problems that might arise from newly published novels. I identified with him strongly, and I think many other readers are going to do the same. We get to see why he was retired from the field, and get a solid arc of growth and development from him.
The other major character who I’ve not mentioned yet is Lena; a motorcycle kick-arse dryad that in many ways makes her the logical heir to the capable and strong heroines and characters of the author’s Princess novels. And yet, even given that, there is more to her than just being a strong and capable woman. You see, Lena, like Smudge, has leaked into this world from the pages of a book, and like the fire spider, is mostly bound to the nature as described in that novel. Given that novel treats all of the women as sex objects that *must* bond with a partner (in the tradition of the Star Trek Episode “The Perfect Mate”), you can see where this is going. Even though Lena already has a partner, her partner’s uncertain status in the wake of the vampire attack means that Lena might very well need a new partner in short order to survive.
However, Hines handles the very thorny issues of Lena’s character with dignity, care, and surprising depth, exploring questions of nature versus nurture, and the ethics of how you treat a character who was born of a book where females are objectified. And yes, her character grows and changes, even given this unusual and strange straitjacket put on her, and the developing relationship between Isaac and Lena is well crafted. Just when you think the arc of that relationship has turned into predictability, the author surprises, but in ways that make sense and keep the gears of the relationship rolling.
The magic and the worldbuilding are another strong area of the novel. While Gumby might have been able to walk into any book, a libriomancer can pull items out of books and have them manifest, fully functional, in the real world. What genre reader wouldn’t want to be able to pull a phaser out of a Star Trek novel when they most need it? Or the healing draught from Narnia? Libriomancy is an amazingly well thought out form of magic. And yes, like any good magic system, there are drawbacks, downsides and weaknesses. You do have to carry the book around in order to pull something out, and overuse of a book, or overuse of the magic itself has consequences. The author does a good job never to make Libriomancy overpowered and without its downsides. There are dangers and risks involved, some of them potentially life threatening.
The idea that things can leak from books, too, without a fully trained libriomancer gives a wide range of magical beings and things that show up in this book, and potentially in future volumes. Yes, sparkly vampires are mentioned (vampires of several stripes are a major antagonist in the novel in general). And there are hints of something very dark that might threaten the entire world that doesn’t show up directly, here, but may be a long term threat that most of the Porters don’t even know is out there. Given that this book reminded me strongly of the movie In the Mouth of Madness, I have to wonder just what the author has in mind.
And the author does a good job with the magic system in that it is definitely not static. Fantasies are often a literature of restoring what was lost, or holding back against the tide. This is doubly true of the magic of the fantasy world–going all the way back to Tolkien and the diminishing Elves. Sorcerers and Magicians often look for old spells, rather than for new arcane solutions to existing problems. This was an issue brought up at a panel at a recent con I attended (Fourth Street Fantasy) and a beta reader of Libriomancer brought up the novel as a counter-example to that trend. And she’s right! Isaac explores and pushes the boundaries of his magic in this novel, discovers new ways of doing things, and is excited by the prospect of learning more. Its a very scientist, researcher sort of viewpoint that is rare in fantasy novels, and it was extremely refreshing to see that point of view in a fantasy character. Looking to the future rather than to the past!
Libriomancer reminds me in some ways of Jo Walton’s Among Others. (You can read my SF Signal review of it, if you like). Both books deal with protagonists immersed in reading, and mostly genre reading at that. Both books speak to the love of books and reading and getting lost in a good book, and the magic of books. Mor and Isaac see their world, and react to it, through the lens of the books that they read and love.
So what didn’t work for me? Not a lot. My biggest criticism might be that the combats are, unrealistically, a little too talky. In the roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons, there is a rule that “talking is a free action”, that is, you can always do it without sacrificing your ability or opportunity to punch that Ogre in the gut. Sometimes, the novel feels like it operates with that rule in place. The combats do suffer on their realism for it.
But if I haven’t made it clear, I liked Libriomancer, and liked it a lot. After a patch of books that I’ve had serious faults with, this is a book I mainlined into my vein and it felt good.
So when’s the next one coming out, Jim?