In Codex Born by Jim C. Hines, the hero and heroines from Libriomancer must face an old enemy in a powerful new form. When Johannes Gutenberg began mass printing books five hundred years ago, he made their inner magic accessible to certain people with magical abilities. Libriomancers, such as Gutenberg, could tap into the collective thoughts of many people reading the same texts and reach into books to retrieve magical objects. He founded the Porters, an organization to protect the world from darker magic and to keep its existence a secret. Libriomancer Isaac Vainio, along with Porter psychiatrist Nidhi Shah and the dryad Lena Greenwood, must battle the darkness unleashed by a dead Porter’s dark past, and in the process discover Gutenberg’s own dark secrets.
This book is as much Lena Greenwood’s story as that of the fight against darkness. Lena is a powerful dryad, the only humanoid sentient creature to be born from a book, able to manipulate wood and skilled in the arts of combat and love. Born of the fantasy novel, Nymphs of Neptune, she was written to become the fantasy woman of her lover.
In book one, Isaac and Lena searched for Nidhi Shah, and in the process she fell in love with him. However, at the end of the book, it was revealed that she also loved Nidhi, and the three of them agreed – due to Lena’s particular nature – to see her. Since they are both good people, Lena herself is a good person, protective of her lovers and caring and compassionate to others. However, conflict arises when the villain wants Lena for himself. If he gets his way, what kind of monster would she become?
Each chapter begins with a short excerpt from Lena’s life, told by Lena herself. This way we get a bit more insight into her character without heavy info dumps. We see how she grows over time and evolves depending on who she is with, without the information itself weighing down the story. It also serves a nice counterweight to the rest of the book – especially the action scenes, told from Isaac’s point of view.
One of the things I liked most about this book is the way Hines addressed the issue of ebooks and how they relate to libriomancy, something I felt was lacking in book one. The book begins with Isaac being taught by a young, newly discovered libriomancer, how to reach into an ereader and extract magical items – a skill he sadly lacks. This becomes an ongoing question throughout the story, can Isaac develop the skill he needs to pull magic from books when he doesn’t have a physical text to draw from?
Both Nidhi Shah and Isaac love and care for Lena Greenwood, and both define the type of person she is, as is shown by the chapter introductions from Lena’s point of view. Lena is in the peculiar position of having to fight not only magical villains, but against her own nature if she should ever become seduced by those same villains. This lends her a strange empathy with her enemy that is a source of tension throughout the narrative. How will Lena deal with her own nature is as much a conflict as the physical one filled with magical creatures and inventions.
There’s plenty of that too. Isaac draws a shock gun from one text and on more than one occasion relies on the translations from a babblefish from Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There’s mechanical creatures too, from magical robotic insects to gigantic constructed dragons, as well as more conventional magic creatures such as wendigos, werewolves, and vampires. And of course, Smudge is Isaac’s pet fire-spider, his companion and early warning system.
Isaac must also watch himself, for libriomancers who use magic too often can (and have) gone insane. Each time he dips into a book’s magic, he not only risks his own sanity, but he risks becoming a part of the very evil he’s trying to fight. In many ways, he shares Lena’s plight; they each must battle darkness while fighting not to become the enemies they face.
This is a fast-paced read. The conflicts and tensions, both physical and emotional, draw the reader into the fantastic world of the Porters, and make the mind spin with possibilities. What new things will be pulled from books next? What marvelous new inventions, and how will they be used-or misused?
Though this is book two of a series, the author does a decent job of weaving in the backstory in an engaging way. Narrative facts from book one were introduced seamlessly, with the chapter introductions from Lena’s perspective adding interest and sympathy for her character.
Some readers may find the unconventional sexual situation and some sexual references distracting from the plot and characters, though the lovers’ triangle is essential to the story. The fact that Lena has two lovers molds her personality, the person she is, and influences all her actions. However, there are no graphic sex scenes, merely inference or brief references (due to the werewolves’ free love mentality).
I would recommend this read to bibliophiles of all stripes. Hines does a wonderful job of bringing the reader into the series without a hitch, and though there are loose ends enough for a sequel, still manages to pull off a satisfying conclusion. Besides, with a premise based on the magic of reading and the heroism of librarians, how could it possibly go wrong? Codex Born is as enjoyable and magical as Libriomancer, and a fitting sequel as well.
Go forth, and read!