Review: Libriomancer (Magic ex Libris #1)

[Note: The following will contain SPOILERS for Libriomancer, I will try to keep them to a minimum. It might also be triggery for rape and/or extremely dubious consent, see spoilers section]

After the slow-as-molasses read that was The Light Bearer, I decided that I was going to read something that I was certain I would actually enjoy, and Libriomancer is a book about a kickass librarian, his fire-spider, and his kickass dryad friend kicking ass with the magic of reading.

Yeah, I was pretty sure I would enjoy it from the get go even if the author’s Princess series hadn’t already turned me into a Jim C. Hines fangirl. (I didn’t think the Princess series was perfect, mind you, but it’s pretty good–for a book written by a whitecishet guy).

Libriomancer‘s main character is Isaac Vainio, a libriomancer and member of a secret organization known as Die Zwelf Portenaere (The Twelve Doorkeepers) which was founded by Johannes Gutenberg to protect the world from supernatural threats. Libriomancers have the ability to reach into books and draw forth objects, , but Isaac hasn’t been doing much of that lately ever since being taken out of the field, so he works at his “day job” as a cataloger, flagging books for the Porters’ database. After being attacked by vampires and discovering that Gutenberg has been kidnapped, Isaac enters the field again to find him, accompanied by Smudge, his pet fire-spider, and Lena, a dryad with a sweet tooth who packs a pair of wooden swords, a search that will lead to him uncovering dark secrets about libriomancy, Gutenberg, and the history of magic.

At it’s core, Libriomancer is a book about how reading is wondrous and magical. It’s a love letter (and, I believe, a deconstruction) of science fiction and fantasy tropes. This is a book for everyone who has ever wished that objects from books were real things that could be used. Libriomancy itself is basically a form of pop culture magic, in that it ultimately draws from the readers’ belief in and love of books. I can’t tell you how many feels this book gave me both as someone who went to library school and as a fan of SFF, but it was a lot of feels.

In terms of writing, Libriomancer reminds me of Jim Butcher’s work without all the wisecracking and sexism. It’s also pretty well-paced, neither too fast or too slow, and while the overall plot isn’t the book’s strongest point, there are some twists and turns that keep things interesting. The world is also very interesting. It’s basically your standard Urban Fantasy Kitchen Sink (vampires, werewolves, etc.) ni with a twist in that there are natural born and book born species (and apparently hundreds of different species of vampire). Since vampires are the antagonists du jour, jabs at everything from Twilight to Carmilla are commonplace, and Public Domain Artifacts are on display everywhere. You can almost picture Hines at his keyboard (or perhaps he has a notepad) positively giddy over every pop culture reference he inserts into this book. As a system of magic, Libriomancy has clearly defined rules, but it’s not as rigid a system as, say, something like Brandon Sanderson’s rules-heavy systems.

In terms of characters, we have Isaac, our narrator and the titular libriomancer, but we also have Smudge, the fire-spider who roasts the insects he catches and manages to be kind of adorable even though he is a spider, and Lena, the ass-kicking, motorcycle-riding, dryad with a thing for sweets. I know I’ve been talking a lot about Isaac, but this is as much Lena’s book as it is his, and, to be honest, of the three, I found Isaac to be the least compelling. He just seemed kind of average and pretty much checks all the boxes on the ‘”retired” urban fantasy main character list’ (discovered magic by accident and nearly ended up seriously hurting himself? check. Caused an incident which forced him to “retire” from fieldwork? Check. Pushed back into the field because there’s no one else who can get the job done? Check.) Lena, on the other hand, Lena is awesome. She rescues Isaac more than once over the course of the book. She’s also described as “heavyset” and “plump” which is pretty refreshing in a genre where many female characters are some variant of thin and petite (she is also described as “tan” which I took to mean brown but could just as easily be seen as white). However, what I found most compelling about Lena was her constant struggle to find agency (see the spoilery bits below) as much as this book is a fun romp based around the idea that books are great, the story is also about Lena’s struggle to find her own identity.

There are also some great secondary characters. The book might as well be called “Isaac Vainio is surrounded by badass women”. There’s his boss, Nicola Pallas, who keeps chupacabras as pets. fellow libriomancer Deb DeGeorge, who speaks and reads five languages “and spouts obscenities in six”, Alice Granach, a vampire who leads the Detroit nest, Nidhi Shah, the Porter’s resident psychiatrist and Lena’s lover. Isaac also mentions in a blink and you miss it line that his mother proposed to his father. Even his barely mentioned mother smashes the patriarchy! For male characters, we have Isaac himself, and Ponce de Leon, who takes a more indirect role in the plot, Gutenberg himself is MIA of course, but we get to know more about him from Isaac as the story progresses.

As for representation, there’s Nidhi Shah (who, based on her name and references to her speaking Gujarati) is Indian, and possibly Lena, depending on how you read the “tan skin” statement.  Lena is also bi (or possibly poly or pan, see spoilers below) and, as noted above, currently in a relationship with Dr. Shah. There’s also a hinted-at relationship between two male characters and a polyamorous relationship.

Thematically, the book discusses the issue of nature vs. nurture, identity, and agency in a way that is perhaps not without problems (see spoilers below) but adds some complexity to a book that would otherwise have a pretty standard plot with extra bibliophilia.

Normally this is where I would give my recommendation, but there is some potentially triggering content that I think merits some discussion, and it has to do with Lena.

[SPOILERS START HERE]

Lena is quite easily the most problematic character in this book.

To summarize, Lena is actually not a natural-born dryad, she is a book-born entity. Book-born creatures are subject to the rules that their book sets out for them, in Lena’s case, her book is bad science fiction (specifically compared to the Gor novels) where her and her fellow nymphs are created to be (in Isaac’s words) “magical sex toys” for their partner, which means that Lena’s personality shifts to match that of her lover, but it also means that it is her nature to not want to say no.

Isaac’s reaction to this revelation is to be completely disgusted (Lena herself seems rather blase about it) and at this point I was pretty disgusted too, especially since Hines is an anti-rape activist and regularly blogs about sexism in SFF (and in general).

The thing is, even though this sexist rapetastic bullshit is written into Lena’s nature, she takes steps to avoid it. When Nidhi Shah goes missing (leaving her without a partner and thus free to be molded by anyone) she goes to Isaac for protection and Isaac resists becoming involved with her (something that other authors probably would have jumped on) because he’s never really sure how much of her attraction to him is her nature and how much of it is due to her making a conscious decision, and Lena is constantly working within the “rules” of her book to make her own decisions.

In the hands of another author, this could have been a trainwreck, and I think (again, knowing something about Hines) that some discomfort on the part of the reader is intentional, that the whole point is to deconstruct this incredibly sexist trope and have a character who still manages to find her own identity. At the same time, I kind of wonder if it was really necessary to have a  badass character with rapeyness in their backstory, but, on the other hand, it does add a layer of complexity to Lena’s character, and it seems like Hines is going to explore Lena’s character a whole lot more in Codex Born.

[SPOILERS END HERE]

There’s a lot to like about Libriomancer. There are a whole lot of references popular SFF and vampire literature, some great characters even though Isaac himself is kind of flat, and some great discussion of nature vs. nurture, choice and agency. In terms of the urban fantasy genre, it breaks the mold in a few ways, and it manages to give the reader something of the wonder that they experienced when picking up a favourite book for the first time. If you’ve always wanted to pluck Excalibur from the pages of a book, you owe it to yourself to pick this one up.

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