A Magical Arms Race: Revisionary by Jim C. Hines: a review

Jim C. Hines has made a career out of writing immensely fun fantasy adventures; novels which possess both a measure of thematic depth and a sense of humour. Revisionary is his latest, the fourth and final novel in the well-received Magic ex Libris series. It might be an end—but it’s a pretty solidly satisfying one.

Isaac Vainio is a libriomancer, a magician whose power comes from books and belief. For years he’s been a member of the secretive organisation known as the Porters, who existed to exert control over magic and books, and to preserve the safety of ordinary people. But as a result of the upheavals of Unbound, the Porters’ immortal leader, Gutenberg (yes, that Gutenberg) died, and Isaac found himself in the unenviable position of having to reveal the existence of magic to the world.

The results, as of the beginning of Revisionary, have been about as happy as you might expect. The international community fears—and is engaging in—a magical arms race, governments are cracking down on magical beings and practitioners, and in the USA, Isaac and his friends and colleagues—his boss Nicola Pallas, his dryad lover Lena, Nidhi Shah, psychologist to Porters and Lena’s other lover—are exposed to hostile scrutiny and subjected to aggressive questioning in Congressional hearings. And New Millennium, Isaac’s pet research institute to showcase the medical and humanitarian possibilities of magic, is under pressure from various government agencies—including the Department of Homeland Security—to develop magical weapons and the more destructive properties of libriomancy.

When a terrorist attack involving werewolves results in the death of Michigan’s anti-magic governor, Isaac finds himself under pressure from all sides, as his unsanctioned investigation leads him to a conspiracy of supernatural people determined to fight back against repressive government policies, and a conspiracy at the highest levels of government—involving secret prisons and experimentation on unwilling subjects—to control magic and magical beings and bring them into line: either exterminated or as tools of the state.

The conspiracies are willing to rack up a high body count. Isaac and his ragtag band of not-exactly-heroes—Lena, Nidhi, the no-longer-human insect-munching Deb—are trying to stop them. This process involves chasing Coast Guard vessels in invisible boats, fighting armed soldiers with magic, nearly dying (several times), breaking into (and out of) a secret prison, and re-infiltrating New Millennium’s high-security compound as wanted fugitives.

Hines’ love for speculative genre literature shines through on every page. In many ways, this series is an ode to the weird, the batshit, and the wonderful imaginative possibilities of speculative fiction—which does occasionally make it feel as though it’s playing an insider’s game: it might be a little too sincere about its love, sometimes. But the cast of characters is interesting and strongly drawn: Lena is a complex superhero, Nidhi a rock, Isaac… sort of a goofball, but a goofball who gets things done.

Revisionary is a series of capers, high-speed and breakneck. It reflects, too, a world in which governments cannot be trusted in the least to respect due process and human rights, and its generally optimistic tone is darkened by the underlying dialogue on the nature of civil rights and equality before the law when whole classes of people can be designated as not human enough at a government’s convenience. This is a fantasy novel that deals with the trappings of the security state, and its positive ending is a fragile, fragile thing.

Deeper thematic arguments and questions of political morality aside, Revisionary is an awful lot of fun. I personally really enjoyed the fact that Isaac spends most of the novel simply surrounded by competent women—what’s remarkable is just how much this novel treats this state of affairs as unremarkable. It’s not a big thing. It’s just a thing.

If I have one complaint, it’s about the italicised sections of context-free dialogue that open each chapter. It takes a while for a reader to realise who’s talking in these segments, and that is a little distracting. But on the whole? A+ fun book adventure, would book again. It’s a solid finale for the series—and I look forward to whatever Hines brings us next.

Revisionary is available February 2nd from DAW.

Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books and other things. She has recently completed a doctoral dissertation in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter.

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