Author: Jim C. Hines
Series: Magic Ex Libris 1
Retired from the field after losing control of his magic, Isaac Vainio is banned from using libriomancy - magic that can bring any item from a book into the real world. Instead, he works for the Porters, the secret organization governing magic, in a support capacity, cataloging books for other libriomancers to use. That changes when three vampires come to his library to kill him, and the dryad Lena Greenwood rescues him. The vampires have declared war on the Porters. Their first attack was on Dr. Nidhi Shah, Lena's lover and therapist to the Porters. Now Lena and Isaac have to find the source of corruption in order to prevent a war - which may well be in the very organization to which Isaac belongs.
Libriomancy is an application of the power of belief. In this universe, when Johannes Gutenberg re-invented the printing press, he did so in order to standardize the written word. Thousands and millions of people, all reading and imagining the same thing, is a powerful dose of belief. Libriomancers can access that communal pool and make imagination into reality.
This is the Ur-fantasy, the fantasy that unites them all. This is a world where you can have truth serum from The Vorkosigan Saga, healing tonics from The Chronicles of Narnia, the Holy Grail from Christian literature, and chlorine gas from a World War I history book. You also can have magic and myth blended with the real world, with DVR's programmed to record shows that won't air for six months and insulin pumps jury-rigged to deliver holy water to potential vampires. The use of literary references could easily have been overdone, but I didn't think it was: when I recognized the reference, I was rolling my eyes and thinking, It's called fast-penta not truth serum, but when I didn't get the reference (I've never read Heinlein and I doubt I ever will) it didn't slow the story down.
Libriomancer also taps into a personal fantasy for the reader. Libriomancers are uber-geeks, whether their geekhood is for science fiction or history. They are all incorrigible day-dreamers and all love books. I know that description fits myself and I suspect it fits a large portion of the audience. This is wish-fulfillment fantasy at its finest: I'm special. Geeks are special. And while children who start reading Harry Potter before their eleventh birthday are often crushed when they don't get an owl, libriomancers can discover their magic at any age.
A large part of the appeal of this book is that it's just fun. It's about all the awesome and ridiculous things you wish you could do. And the characters are simultaneously badass and "just regular folks". Lena kicks ass and takes names, using a pair of wooden swords that move and grow in her hands. And given that she is not human at all, but part tree, she survives on a diet of...ice cream and soda pop. Isaac genuinely has a passion for research, getting distracted in the middle of fighting giant killer robots to marvel at just how cool they are. And while his constant questioning helps him gather clues, his rather self-conscious movie quoting habit only serves to make him look insecure.
Another thing I really loved about this book is that Isaac and Lena live in a world populated with the kinds of people our world is populated with. I mean, the viewpoint character of this story is a White guy, so it's hardly groundbreaking. But the other main character is a brown-skinned, curvy, bisexual woman, and some of the supporting characters are of color, autistic, and queer. It's really easy for authors to throw in a few tokens, but this story felt cohesive to me. The characters' identities were neither caricatured nor tacked on, but simply part of them. It felt like the world I live in, not some exaggerated Hollywood set.
Lena's character arc fascinates me. As a dryad and a nymph, Lena's appearance and personality changes to match her lover's expectations. It happens without her choice or control, but she can choose who her lover will be. So the love triangle in this book isn't just about love - it's also about identity. (highlight for spoilers) The resolution of the love triangle was absolutely fitting to the characters and to the story. It was foreshadowed early on, when Lena had magic tendrils stretching to both Dr. Shah and Isaac, when she had multiple cuttings from her tree, and when she says that dryads don't stop loving easily. And it fit Lena's character in two ways: she genuinely loved both people and who she was with both people, and splitting her involuntary change across two people's preferences gave her greater choice and control in her own identity.
One of the focuses of this book is the mind and mental health. Libriomancy works by channeling the mental energies of belief, imagination, and memory; when overused, the abyss gazes also into the libriomancer, and their sense of reality starts to slip. Insanity opens cracks in the mind that evil can slip through. On several occasions, someone who has had or who is suspected of having a mental breakdown is checked for magical, evil possession. Which works in the world of the story; if you live in a universe where evil is tangible, it makes sense to check on people who are vulnerable to such possession. If, however, you live in the real universe where we do not have evil-detectors and we do have mentally ill people being discriminated against, it reinforces the societal message of "crazy=dangerous".
A bit of the story's resolution employed circular logic (highlight for spoilers): the villain was a libriomancer whose magic was "locked" and his memories of it erased. When the lock was broken and he realized what had happened, he deliberately opened himself up to magical evil possession. His goal was to wipe out the secret order that had tampered with his head. Yet at the end, when discussing the morality of locking people's magic, Isaac says he can understand why it's necessary because look at what the villain did. Person gets mindwiped -> person takes revenge for being mindwiped -> we need mindwiping to prevent this kind of revenge. ??? How does that work? It is possible, given that some of the other bits of conclusion were presented as "Is this really the lesser of two evils? How can we know?", that the intention was to present some ambiguity in the moral issue being discussed. What I am specifically taking issue with is Isaac's circular reasoning, where an action is necessary to prevent the negative effects the action has caused.
Overall, this is a really fun story. It's a book about geekery and loving books. For good characterization, good worldbuilding, and good cohesion, with only a few quibbles, I give Libriomancer a B+.