Donna: Libriomancer, Jim C. Hines

Written by Donna


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October 2, 2012



When I encountered the Meyerii vampires (now with more sparkling!) in Jim C. Hines’ Libriomancer, I knew I was going to have fun reading it. In fact, I wiggled with glee. Plus, Our Hero, Isaac, has a fire spider named Smudge. How cool is that??

Turns out, pretty cool in terms of concept. This is a fun, fun book to read, especially if you’re a true book geek—books are magic to people like us, and here’s Hines, making the magic happen. Who hasn’t wanted to pull some gadget out of a book at some point? When I was stuck in traffic last week, I was sitting there just wishing I had Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (although I couldn’t pull that out of the book—too big. But still, the idea stands.) or, conversely, Roy Hobbs’ bat to bash my way through the traffic. The idea of a libriomancer—a magician who can reach into a text and magically remove objects from that text—is a great idea to start from. It taps every button readers have.

But Hines is careful to point out the dangers of being able to do this (oh, if one could!)—strange vampire hybrids, weaponry that no human should have any business using, and the ability, in the wrong hands, to start a war between vampires and libriomancers. And therein lies our plot, which has some issues, I’m sorry to say.

Isaac Vainio is working as a librarian when the book begins. Because he’s not able to control himself well when using his magic, he’s been relegated to cataloging books for their magical potential for Die Zwelf Portenaere, a centuries old organization founded by Johannes Gutenberg whose mission is to protect the world from magical threats. As a Porter, Isaac is a part of this organization, but his lack of discipline has caused his banishment to this small Michigan town, where he is forbidden to use his magic unless confronted with an emergency. When the Sparklers (the Meyerii vampires named after the Twilight series) show up at Isaac’s library to kill him, he learns from them that someone has been attacking vampires, and they’re blaming The Porters. But he soon discovers the Porters are under attack as well.

Isaac survives his initial encounter with the Sparklers with the help of a Dryad named Lena Greenwood, and together they set out to rescue Lena’s lover, who has been kidnapped by the vampires for purposes of their own. Things get more complicated from there, however, when they learn that while the vampires have certainly been attacking Porters, they’re doing so with self-preservation in mind—a power far greater than them is attacking other vampires and enslaving them. They’re only trying to figure out what’s going on. Isaac and Lena would like to know the answer to that too. The vampires think Guttenberg (now 600 years old—quite young for a sorcerer, really) is responsible. Isaac would be inclined to think this is impossible, except for one small problem: Guttenberg has vanished into thin air.

So of course he and Lena set off to find Guttenberg, hoping he’s not behind the attacks, even though the regional director of the Porters orders him to stay out of it. But he can’t, because he’s promised Lena, who he’s falling in love with, that he’ll help her get her lover back from the vampires, and the only way to do that is to find out who is killing the Porters and vampires both. And he hasn’t got much time to do it in—if he can’t produce answers in a week, the vampires have made it clear that Lena’s lover is doomed.
As plots go, it’s pretty standard stuff—there are magical encounters that both Isaac and Lena barely survive, and of course, there’s the big showdown with the person responsible for the attacks at the end. The rules Hines establishes for the world he’s working in are fairly straightforward—Isaac can’t pull anything from a book that won’t fit through the book’s physical dimensions, for example, and certain really obviously useful things (like Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak or a time-turner) are unavailable because Guttenberg has recognized the potential issues and has placed magical locks on those books to prevent untrained libriomancers from accidentally getting hold of something like a dragon egg.

The reviewer’s dilemma has always been how much of a plot to reveal in order to make a point. I don’t want to go much further into discussing the plot because I don’t want to spoil the book for the reader. But there are certain things that happen later that are just clunky and don’t quite work, plot-wise, and one of them is such a huge howler I nearly threw the book across the room. I realize I’m talking about a fantasy novel here, but that’s no reason to go overboard. At some point, the reader is going to say “No, no, I’m not willing to go there.” I did in one case here.

Overboard, in fact, seems a good word to sum up what bothers me about the plot here. Standard as the elements are, the biggest problem I had was that there was just too much of it going on. Isaac and Lena’s budding romance, the search for Guttenberg, the identity of the villain and the explanation, the rescue of Lena’s lover, a lot of fight scenes, so many different types of vampires, plus the world-building—it’s a lot for a 305 page book, and a lot to keep track of, so it feels a little crammed to me, like Hines tried to get everything in that he could think of. The result is that the plot doesn’t build as well as it could, and a lot gets sacrificed in the process, like more leisurely, deeper characterization.

As a rule, though, it’s easy enough to overlook creaking plot points when you’re having a good time, and it’s kind of fun to say “Well, if I were in that situation, I’d go to *this* book to get *this* solution to the problem” and play along. That’s also true with the characters here—Isaac seems like a nice enough guy, and he meets the standard definition of a romantic hero, but he’s fairly two dimensional still, defined by his magical skill more than his personality; as a problem this will likely disappear as Hines explores the world he’s created and his characters more deeply, and as we’re just getting to know Isaac, this is something that’s easily forgiven. Lena is better developed as a character, but she has the advantage of being a nymph—she’s got some basic character boundaries already in place by definition. The secondary characters are also defined mostly by their abilities—Hines does just enough to make them interesting and then lets them go about their business.

This is obviously meant to be an ongoing series, and it’s one I’ll likely be keeping an eye on to see how it grows because it has the potential to be really kick-ass. If you’re a book lover, you’ll appreciate Isaac’s great love for and knowledge of books. If you like urban fantasy, you’ll appreciate the interesting concept. There isn’t a lot of depth here, but sometimes a girl just wants a cup of tea and some fun. And in that sense, it fit the bill just fine.

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"It's chaos, be kind."
Michelle McNamara