“Where does he get those wonderful toys?”
—The Joker, Batman (1989)
Isaac Vainio is a librarian, but not like any you’ve ever met. He’s secretly a libriomancer, a magician capable of working amazing feats through the power of the written word. In short, he can reach into a book and pull out anything he needs. Within reason. There are rules for this sort of thing, after all, as established by the Porters, the secret society founded by Johannes Gutenberg centuries ago. (Yes, that Gutenberg, he of the printing press. Who knew he was actually a sorcerer?)
Because of a few mistakes, Isaac’s been retired from the field, now working to catalogue books, recording the useful and dangerous ones for future consideration or protective binding. (Do you really want people accidentally bringing through the Kellis-Amberlee virus from the Mira Grant books? I thought as much.) It’s a quiet life, if somewhat unfulfilling after the excitement of field ops, but that monotony is disrupted when Isaac’s attacked by vampires. Yeah, it’s going to be one of those days….
Luckily, Isaac’s still got his combat instincts, and he’s real handy with a disruptor borrowed from Star Trek. He also has his faithful companion, the fire-spider Smudge. (Why yes, I see you waving your hand back there. Smudge escaped from Hines’ own Jig the Goblin series. Good catch.) Last-minute help also comes in the form of Lena Greenwood, a motorcycle-riding nymph who can hold her own in a fight. They rout the vampires and compare notes. It seems as though the vampires are at war with the Porters, and all Hell’s broken loose.
Now many of Isaac’s friends and former colleagues are dead or missing, and Gutenberg himself is nowhere to be found. Isaac and Lena must make an uneasy alliance with one faction of vampires in order to get to the heart of the mystery. Who’s set the vampires and Porters at each other’s throats? Who’s using forbidden magic to manipulate and destroy both factions? Is it really a rogue libriomancer, as Isaac fears? Or something far worse, and much more insidious?
Libriomancer, the start of Jim C. Hines’ new Magic Ex Libris series, is pretty much geek porn for the urban fantasy set. It’s meta-fictional and utterly awesome. In one fell swoop, Hines pays homage and tribute to the entire concept of publishing, and to all sorts of genres. He plays with words and ideas and concepts, and offers up something affectionately bizarre and absolutely delightful as a result. Welcome to a world where the hero can borrow a phaser from Star Trek, healing potions from the Narnia books, a Babel fish from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and so much more. Welcome to a world where vampires come in dozens of varieties depending on their literary source. (In the beginning, Isaac is attacked by several Sanguinarius Meyerii… otherwise known as sparklers. Yeah. Hines went there. Shamelessly.) Hands up, who now wants to be a libriomancer? Me too.
So the underlying premise is awesome. Hines’ execution of the concept is top-notch and fascinating. I could just imagine him spending untold hours hashing out the details as an intellectual exercise. I’d have killed to be part of that brainstorming session. I still have a few dozen questions about how it all works and what if you did X or Y or Z, but those will have to wait….
The plot itself is fairly standard issue for urban fantasy, although Hines does a good job of keeping it from being too predictable. There’s a strong element of mystery, as Isaac and his allies try to deal with vampire and Porter politics and figure out who the mystery villain is and how said villain got the power in question. There’s lots of action, and an inordinate amount of fond geekery. It’s everything an urban fantasy reader could want in a book.
But now we get to one of my favorite aspects of the story. As mentioned before, one of Isaac’s allies is Lena Greenwood, a nymph whose origin is tied to libriomancy. (Some might remember a character much like this appearing in Hines’ story in the DAW anthology, A Girl’s Guide to Guns and Monsters. Close, but some changes were made.) Not only is Lena an ass-kicking heroine, she’s bisexual and described as heavyset. Her girlfriend is Doctor Nidhi Shah, clearly of Indian descent. I have to give Hines two thumbs up for giving us characters who don’t fit the usual mold. While Doctor Shah doesn’t get a lot of screen time, Lena does and her personal arc is an intriguing one, to say the least. Her working and interpersonal relationship with Isaac makes for a thought-provoking subplot, one which seems to address the role of secondary female characters in books like this.
On one level, Libriomancer is a fairly standard sort of urban fantasy adventure. The trappings are different, but it occupies the same sort of headspace as Jim Butcher, James R. Tuck, Kevin Hearne, K.A. Stewart, or any of the other writers specializing in action over paranormal romance. On another level, this is a joyful romp through the very concept of pop culture and literature, like the streetwise distant cousin to Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books. It’s funny, it’s fast-paced, it’s extremely geeky, it’s not afraid to take potshots at genre conventions and its own inherent weirdness, and it’s a great start to a new series. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Roanoke, VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who occasionally steals whatever he’s reading. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf. He is the editor of the forthcoming Scheherazade’s Facade anthology.