The cover of the mass market paperback of Jim C. Hines’s book Libriomancer is pure cheese. Do not let that deter you. The book is a wealth of fast-paced fun for fans of magic, fantasy and books.
Isaac Vainio is a libriomancer, a magician who can reach into books and manifest objects that are described in them. Isaac works for a global magical group called The Porters, who guard magical gateways across the world. The Porters were founded by Johannes Gutenberg, the father of moveable type, and the first libriomancer. When the book opens, Isaac has been benched from fieldwork, working at a mundane library and cataloging potentially dangerous objects from stories into the Porter database. He is attacked by three shiny vampires who can walk around during the day. Isaac barely escapes, mostly with the help of Lena, a motorcycle-riding dryad who has lost her tree. From there, the action mounts as various vampire groups attack the Porters, vampires themselves come under attack and the nearly-immortal Gutenberg disappears.
The book takes place in Michigan, mostly in the Upper Peninsula. Hines creates a strong sense of place, not only in the U.P as it’s called, but in Detroit, most powerfully in an abandoned factory.
A lot happens in Libriomancer, and a lot of it happens quickly, but I felt like there was very little forward momentum in the book until Isaac and Lena got to the campus of Michigan State University. Hines throws characters and dilemmas at us fast and furious in the first fifty pages and it was a little too much. Isaac has been removed from fieldwork because of something he did in the past. He claims that this event made him face up to his own arrogance, but he hasn’t done much to curb it since then. He is a glib character, and “Vainio” is an appropriate last name. It’s not bragging, though, if you can deliver, and Isaac mostly delivers in this first volume. The one exception is with his magical pet, the fire-spider Smudge. Smudge is a great familiar, and Isaac would do well to pay attention to what Smudge tries to communicate to him. The first time he ignores Smudge’s actions is early in the book, and it’s new to the reader, so we forgive him; the second time, Isaac merely looks stupid.
Hines manages to keep the story moving while squeezing in a powerful amount of exposition and backstory. That’s not easy to do, and Hines’s balance is close to perfect. Any reader will love this story for the way Hines plays with books, mixing real titles with imaginary ones; using artifacts we all recognize, some in unusual ways (the babel-fish from Douglas Adams get special treatment here). Lena’s origin story is original. It gives her an unusual character problem to deal with and Lena’s solution is ingenious. Other characters, notably Isaac’s boss Nicola Pallas, who is trying to successfully cross-breed dogs with chupacabras, provide darkly-lined comic relief.
What was missing for me for most of this book was a sense of the, well, the magic of the magic. In the early Harry Dresden books, there is a real sense of strangeness when Harry mixes his whacky potions. When Matthew Swift in Kate Griffin’s urban sorcerer novels conjures up a powerful spell from the fine print on the back of an Underground ticket, it feels as if the world slips sideways for a minute; as if words and symbols do have meaning, and we don’t always know what all those meanings are. In a book about the magic of books, the magic of words, I would expect to have that feeling more strongly, and it isn’t here for me until Isaac and Lena begin studying one of Gutenberg’s automatons, two-thirds of the way through the book. Isaac uses the magic in a formulaic, mundane manner, as if he’s designing a character in a role-playing game. Isaac’s explanation of how artifacts in books get power (based on the belief and audience of the book) is plausible in this magical system — and leads to some fine jokes about the HARRY POTTER books — but seems to trip up the plot twist at the end. The villain wrote his own book. He self-published, but hid it, largely so that the Porters would not find it. Books that are hidden, that no one reads or believes in, should not be able to juice an artifact as powerful as the one the villain created, if I understand the magic here correctly. Isaac makes an offhanded comment that the villain got the book into the hands of true-believers, but he can’t explain how. This seems to undermine Hines’s entire magical system.
I felt like Libriomancer was DRESDEN FILES Lite, but I still kept the light on past midnight to finish it. Isaac and Lena are characters I cared about and Gutenberg (and Pallas) are interesting. Because I didn’t feel any connection to the magic, I am giving this book three and a half stars instead of four, but I would still happily recommend it to any of my fantasy-reading friends.