It starts with a body, and things quickly escalate. That’s how libriomancer Isaac Vainio’s life goes from complicated, to messy. Isaac, one of a select few who can use the magic of collective belief to literally pull things from books, is living the life of a researcher in Michigan, when he’s called to examine the body of a wendigo. But when he uses his abilities to peer into the past, he attracts the wrong sort of attention. He’s subsequently attacked by a swarm of mechanical insects which are attracted to, and devour, magic.
From there, it’s a nightmarish, adrenaline-fueled journey into the sort of secrets and dangers even the well-read and battle-hardened Isaac couldn’t have imagined. Vampires. Wendigos. A rogue sect of libriomancers which predates Isaac’s own Gutenberg-founded order. A fiendish plan to use libriomancy to resurrect the long dead and avenge centuries-old grievances. And poor Isaac, caught in the middle as always…
Codex Born picks up where Libriomancer left off. In the wake of the previous book’s events, Isaac has been tasked to explore, experiment with, and delve into, previously-unknown and emerging aspects of libriomancy. Through trial and error, he’s expanded his abilities and discovered strange new aspects of the field. And yet, surprises abound. Such as the fourteen-year-old girl who’s learned how to work libriomancy with electronic readers, in direct contradiction to all know evidence. Her abilities, previously considered impossible, may just revolutionize the field…and upset the balance of power.
When it comes to this series, I’m afraid it’s hard for me to process thoughts coherently. There’s so much going on, and so much of it is pure awesome, that I end up flailing for words like Kermit the Frog on a three-day bender. The concept itself is pure brilliance, a literary love letter and a bibliophile’s wish fulfillment rolled into one. Who hasn’t yearned to conjure up his own lightsaber, her own phaser, their own healing potion or time machine or magic sword? Who wouldn’t love to borrow a gadget or gizmo or artifact from their favorite book? What would you do if you could steal a Babel Fish from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Yeah. The possibilities are endless. And Hines spends a lot of time playing with the concept, and locking down the rules which make it both possible and consistent…and then he breaks every single one of those rules in new and different ways. Heck, I can’t even explain how some of these rules, and the breaking thereof, affect the plot without going into spoilers. But he touches on e-readers, and role-playing games, and a few other permutations that had certainly crossed my mind.
In other words, Codex Born, like Libriomancer before it, is so full-on geeky about its love of books that it goes full-on meta, touching upon dozens of other works (some familiar, some obscure, and some brand-new). And of course Hines also borrows from his own work, by including Smudge the fire-spider from the Jig the Goblin books.
Hines has always been an unapologetically outspoken proponent for diversity, equality, feminism, and the like, using his social media as platforms to help address some glaring issues within the field. From tackling sexual harassment at conventions, to gently mocking the sexism of book covers (by painfully replicating certain poses), he’s shown a willingness to go the extra distance. However, it’s telling that he also chooses to use his own writing as an opportunity to push boundaries. Codex Born may have a cis het white guy at the center of the story, but a huge amount of the book is given over to characters of color. Isaac’s girlfriend is a dark-skinned dryad named Lena, a bisexual warrior who found her origins in a Gor-like knockoff, and who has since stubbornly forged her own identity as best she can. Lena’s girlfriend is an Indian lesbian, a doctor with more common sense and practicality than the other two combined. (And no, Isaac and Nidhi aren’t involved…it’s actually a complicated, yet sensitive, sympathetic, and honest portrayal of a polyamorous relationship. Especially as Isaac tries to adjust to the status quo with a kind of baffled understanding and maturity.)
To further drive home the point that this isn’t just about Isaac, Lena’s story is told through numerous flashbacks, as we see just how a character created to serve men managed to develop her own sense of self and strive for independence—overcoming personality parameters written into her very core. Again, elements of Lena’s origin and development play a huge part in the story. Again, though, she’s a bisexual, polyamorous character of color, and pretty much the designated ass-kicker of the team. And as if that weren’t enough to differentiate her from the run-of-the-mill action heroine, she’s also described as short and heavyset. Fancy that, a combat-ready heroine with curves.
Another thing which makes me perversely pleased is that in Codex Born, Hines explores the Chinese contribution to books and printing. As libriomancers go, the dominant faction is the Porters, led by the immortal Johannes Gutenberg (he of the printing press.) But we always knew there had to be more to the story, and we get more than a glimpse of how rival traditions work. It turns out that there’s a dark side to the official tales….
I told you, I tend to flail at the awesome. There’s so much I want to tell you. Steampunk insects. Secret societies. People who pull cool stuff from books. Fire-spiders. A story which deliberately challenges so many of our expectations and which addresses Western dominance. A story which has room for diversity, queerness, and characters of all sorts. A story which is fun.
Codex Born is a book written by someone who genuinely loves the science fiction and fantasy genre. It celebrates the good and subverts the bad, accepting that for every J.R.R. Tolkien, there’s potentially a John Norman (of Gor), for every classic there’s something that probably deserved to be forgotten. It builds on what’s come before and delivers a thoroughly entertaining adventure. It’s urban fantasy built on top of numerous other layers of fiction, and Hines has just scratched the surface of what he can do. And I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Southwest VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who translates Geek-to-Mundane for him. He is the self-proclaimed High Pornomancer of the Golden Horde, and the editor of Scheherazade’s Façade. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.