Every kid has fantasies. The vast majority of those kids love to play out their favorites, whether they’re swinging imaginary lightsabers or flying on the back of a winged horse or literally anything else they can think of. But strange as it may seem, not too many authors have actually tackled that power of imagination so directly.
That’s where Jim C. Hines comes in. Libriomancer is the first book of his Magic Ex Libris series, which tell the story of Isaac Vainio, his partnership with a sexy dryad named Lena Greenwood, and his tempestuous relationship with a secret society of magic-users known as Die Zwelf Portenære—a.k.a. the Porters, led by none other than the immortal Johannes Gutenberg. The source of their power lies in the collective imagination of the human race. If it’s in a book, they can reach out and summon it into the real world, both the good and the bad.
In Book One, we see Isaac make his return to the field when war breaks out between the Porters and the vampires, as a series of murders and attacks prompts an investigation into a rogue libriomancer and his warped agenda. Isaac must navigate both the halls of power and his own heart, with so many of his preconceptions challenged and tossed aside before the day is won.
As a main character, Isaac is rather unusual. At first glance, you might be forgiven for seeing him as another cookie-cutter urban fantasy hero: a dude in a long coat battling monsters in the back alley while spouting off pop culture references left and right. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find a nice helping of mad scientist, too; Isaac is so enamored with the theories and laws of magic that he’ll easily forget himself and try to work out every last detail and spell just to understand a little more. Some might call it obsessive, but I find it a very human trait, especially for a geek like him. And given how he’s written, I get the impression that Isaac is meant to be a mirror for the geek population that makes up most of the novel’s audience.
The same curious depth goes for his would-be love interest Lena Greenwood. In fact, Lena’s whole character is a very clever deconstruction of the Strong Female Love Interest. In that she literally is a character from a fictional novel, endowed with supernatural strength and a driving urge to be Isaac’s lover—not by the Creator, but by a hack author. What makes Lena so enjoyable, though, is that she both accepts her nature and tries to move beyond it, defining herself by other choices rather than what she was originally written to be. The fact that she’s a rare dryad in modern fiction doesn’t hurt either.
I also loved the mythology that Hines created for his secret side of the modern world. Besides immortal historical figures like Gutenberg and Ponce de Leon, we also get to see geopolitics among magic-users, an impressive take on the different fictional species of vampires, the twelve automatons, and the long-term effects of serious magical energy on both books and people. It’s clear that a lot of thought went into the field of libriomancy, from power drainage to size constraints to the limits of channeling collective human belief.
Truly, I had a lot of fun reading this story, and yet, something didn’t exactly grab me by the end of it. I still can’t quite put my finger on it. I mean, this is a book that has a librarian and a dryad fighting vampires with wooden katanas, laser pistols, and magic herbs from The Odyssey. How could I not love every page of this?
Looking back, it could be that I got a bit too much setup and exposition for the Magic Ex Libris universe instead of some more potent interior moments with Isaac. And it could just as easily be that I’m getting hung up on common Book One issues and the rest of the series is still going to be enjoyable. I sincerely hope it’s the latter and I’ll try to get back to reading and reviewing more of this series in the not-too-distant future.
Bibliography: Hines, Jim C. Libriomancer (Magic Ex Libris, Book One). DAW Books: New York, 2012.