Only the most recent posts pop up on the HOME page. For searchable lists of titles/series reviewed on this Blog, click on one of the Page Tabs above. On each Page, click on the series name to go directly to my review.

AUTHOR SEARCH lists all authors reviewed on this Blog. CREATURE SEARCH groups all of the titles/series by their creature types. The RATINGS page explains the violence, sensuality, and humor (V-S-H) ratings codes found at the beginning of each Blog review and groups all titles/series by their Ratings. The PLOT TYPES page explains the SMR-UF-CH-HIS codes found at the beginning of each Blog review and groups all titles/series by their plot types. On this Blog, when you see a title, an author's name, or a word or phrase in pink type, this is a link. Just click on the pink to go to more information about that topic.

Monday, September 10, 2012


Author:  Jim C. Hines
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)
Publisher and Titles:  DAW
     "Mightier Than the Sword" (short story in Gamer Fantastic anthology, 2009)
     Libriomancer (8/2012)
     Codex Born (8/2013) 
     Unbound (1/2015)
     Revisionary (2/2016)

This post begins with an overview of the series world-building, followed by reviews of the introductory short story, reviews of the first three novels, and the publisher's blurb for novel 4. I will continue to post new titles and summaries, but I will not be reviewing any future novels in this series for reasons explained in my review of novel 3.

     The stars of this inventive world are libriomancers—sorcerers who pull their magic directly from books. If, for example, they need a sword, they can reach into a book about King Arthur and pull out the sword, Excalibur. If they want to sneak into a building, they can pull an invisibility cloak from a Harry Potter book. If they need to be temporarily immune to another's magic, they can grab some Moly, an herb used in Homer's Odyssey that prevents spells from working. If they require an energy shield, they can get one from Frank Herbert's Dune. In other words, a libriomancer is never helpless if he or she can touch familiar books. As the series protagonist explains: "Libriomancy was in many ways a lazy man's magic. There were no wands, no fancy spells, no ancient incantations. No hand-waving or runes. Nothing but the words on the page, the collective belief of the readers, and the libriomancer's love of the story." (Libriomancer, p. 7)

     The leader of the libriomancers is Johannes Gutenberg—yes, the one who invented the printing press and who supposedly died in 1468. "Johannes Gutenberg....devoted his life to the study of magic, a pursuit that eventually led him to the development of the printing press and the mass production of books. Gutenberg theorized that this would allow him to tap into the mutual belief of readers, bolstering his power....Hundreds, even thousands of people could now read the exact same book in the exact same form. The first recorded act of libriomancy was when Gutenberg used his mass-produced Bible to create the Holy grail, the cup of life which had kept him alive all these years." (Libriomancer, p. 37) Gutenberg heads up the Die Zwelf Portenære, or the Twelve Doorkeepers. Here, Isaac Vainio, the series protagonist explains that "the Porters had been around for roughly half a millennium. numbered between four and five hundred members worldwide....Every Porter took an oath to preserve the secrecy of magic, protect the world from magical threats, and work to expand our knowledge of magic's power and potential." (Libriomancer, p. 17) 

     Isaac is a young and powerful libriomancer who was recently removed from his field position with the Porters when he lost his focus and became overwhelmed by magic when he dipped into H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds for power and weaponry during a showdown with some major villains and almost lost himself in a magical overload. As the series opens, Isaac is working a day job at the Copper River Public Library in the Michigan Upper Peninsula. In his off-hours, he is a cataloger for the Porters. That job, he explains, requires him to "flag potentially dangerous books so that they can be locked to prevent someone from using their magic for nefarious purposes or from accidentally causing huge magical problems." (Libriomancerp. 79)

     As part of their oath to protect the world from magical threats, libriomancers track down and punish supernaturals—mostly vampires and shapeshifters—who harm humans. In this world, supernaturals are unknown to the general public. The series mythology surrounding the origins of supernaturals is quite inventive: "Supernatural creatures came about in one of two ways. A handful were natural-born, having evolved alongside Homo sapiens with whatever magical gifts or abilities helped them survive...But the majority of such species were created, thanks in part to the magic of libriomancy. There were only twenty-four known libriomancers in this country, and we knew better than to go sticking our hands into a vampire scene where we might brush against an exposed fang. But there were always others with potential, readers with natural talents who didn't understand what they were doing." (Libriomancer, p. 18) In other words, most vampires and werewolves in this world are created when unsuspecting humans reach into books and either get scraped by a vampire's fang or bitten by a werewolf. After becoming infected, each new supernatural's characteristics depend entirely on the mythology of the infecting book, resulting in many different types of vampires and shifters. For example, the vampire groups include the Sanguinarius Meyerii, who were infected by Stephenie Meyer's TWILIGHT SERIES, and the Stokerus vampires, who date back to Bram Stoker's Dracula. Since each supernatural group has the exact characteristics delineated by the author, we can understand why the Meyerii vamps are nicknamed Sparklers. Isaac blames some famous contemporary writers for the profusion of powerful vampires in recent decades: "I blame Anne Rice. She helped start this whole vampire resurgence back in the late seventies. Then [Tanya] Huff and [Laurell K.] Hamilton and a few others helped it build...And of course, in more recent times, you had Stephenie Meyer." (Libriomancer, p. 17)

Capt. Reynolds
(Nathan Fillion) 
in his Firefly coat
     Much of the humor comes from the antics of Isaac's sidekick, Smudge, a magical fire spider who travels with Isaac at all times and loves to relax by watching SpongeBob Squarepants on TV. (He darts around the screen trying to catch SpongeBob's red tie.) One of the most entertaining aspects of this mythology is the weaponry. When Isaac dresses up in his brown duster (a replica of Captain Malcolm Reynoldsfamous coat on Firefly), he doesn’t pack the pockets with traditional weapons. Instead, he loads them with books—books that have weapons within their pages. He's read them all, loves the stories, and knows exactly which page to touch when he's reaching for some magical assistance. The author includes many, many cultural references, mostly from science fiction/fantasy books and films.

                    SHORT STORY:  "Mightier Than the Sword"                    
     This is the story in which Hines introduces us to Isaac and Smudge, and it takes place back when Isaac was still an active agent for the Protectors. Isaac plays essentially the same character as in the series, although his last name here is not Vainio, but Sky. As the story opens, Isaac is at a comic-con on the trail of a new magic user. When he confronts the suspect, Isaac learns to his dismay that the man is an author, which ratchets up the danger several notches because authors who use the magic in their own books are extremely powerful. Never fear, though, because with Isaac and Smudge on the job, the villain doesn't stand a chance

                         NOVEL 1:  Libriomancer                         
     As the first book opens, Isaac is having a slow day at the Copper River Library when he is suddenly attacked by three sparklers (vampires who originated from Stephenie Meyer's books). Just as he is almost overwhelmed, an old acquaintance comes to his rescue: Lena Greenwood, a dryad who carries wooden swords (aka bokken) that can beat back almost any magical threat. Soon after they dispatch the vamps, they learn that there are huge disruptions in the magical world. First, they discover that Johannes Gutenberg is missing and that his automatons have seemingly gone mad. The automatons are mechanized creatures created by Gutenberg from human essence and movable type to act as his protectors, but in his absence they are being led by an unknown villain and are attacking both vamps and Porters. In the meantime, vampires are attacking Porters all over the country because they believe that Porters are attacking vampsand vice versa. Obviously, someone is tricking each side into attacking the other. The plot follows Isaac and Lena as they try to figure out what's going on and end the problem. 

     The story also has a romance plot, which is much weaker than the action plot. I won't go into Lena's life story (too many spoilers), but I will say that the relationship between Isaac and Lena works only when it is connected to the action plot. Their romantic scenes are awkward and unnatural.

     The first three-fourths of the book are the best—the investigation of the deaths of the Porters and the discovery of the villain's identity and history. In the final quarter of the book, the situation gets so complex that it sometimes doesn't make a lot of sense. By the time Chapter 21 came along, I was moonstruck—just shaking my head thinking "Oh no, you didn't." All in all, though, I love the inventiveness of the world-building and the geeky intelligence and curiosity of the hero, and I'm looking forward to the next book. The cultural references are fun, as are Smudge's antics. I'm not so taken with Lena. She's an O.K. character, but her relationship scenes with Isaac are so awkwardly scripted that it would be better for everyone (characters and readers alike) if the two are partners rather than lovers in future books. Click HERE to read the first chapter.

                          NOVEL 2:  Codex Born                           

     As the book opens, life is good for Isaac—but only for a page or two. He is still working part-time at the Copper River Public Library, and he has received a promotion within Johannes Gutenberg's Die Zwelf Portenære organization (aka the Porters). Isaac is now a magical researcher working on a top-secret special project for Gutenberg. His relationship with his girlfriend, Lena, is moving along smoothly, too, despite the fact that Lena continues to maintain her sexual relationship with the third part of their love triangle, Dr. Nidhi Shah. Isaac has learned to share, even though he still isn't entirely comfortable with the situation. At one point, Isaac refers to Dr. Shah as his metamour, his girlfriend's other lover. Dr. Shah is a Porter psychiatrist (actually Isaac's former therapist), and Lena is a dryad, created from a pulp-fiction fantasy novel by an unknown libriomancer. Because Dr. Shah frequently accompanies Isaac and Lena on their various adventures, Isaac suffers through many awkward scenes like this one: "As always, the feel of her body pressing against mine set off a cascade of physical and emotional responses: desire, excitement, amazement that she had chosen me, conflict over the circumstances of that choice, and awkwardness at knowing her other lover was standing six feet away, deliberately not watching." (p. 15) 

     As we learned in book 1, Lena's central purpose is to be a kind of human sex toy. As Lena puts it, "I was here to fulfill the needs and desires of my lovers." (p. 172) Beyond her sexual talents, Lena has magical powers that allow her to manipulate and blend with wood. She was born from an acorn and needs an oak tree of her own to maintain her strength. At the beginning of each chapter of this book, we get a brief, italicized flashback to Lena's origin and her early history. Although these chronologically arranged scenes are helpful in deepening Lena's character for the reader, they sometimes tend to interrupt the ongoing action.

      The action begins when Isaac and his friends are called to a small mining town in the Michigan Upper Peninsula (UP) to investigate the brutal murder of a wendigoAs Isaac and his allies investigate the murder, they learn that the father of a recently deceased libriomancer is the culprit. August Harrison, father of Victor Harrison, learned his son's magical methods for constructing swarms of mechanical insects and animals, each capable of boring into metal, glass, or human bone. He has also figured out how to create his own indestructible wendigo troops by attaching wendigo skins over magically enthralled humans. Harrison hates Gutenberg and the Porters because he blames them for his son's death at the hands of vampires. Harrison has teamed up with a cult of Asian mystics who have their own agenda and their own set of powers that go back centuries.

     The plot is extremely complex—sometimes chaotic, but fast-paced and full of action. As Isaac pursues Harrison and learns more about Gutenberg's long-ago actions against his early enemies, he discovers that Gutenberg has been keeping some dangerous secrets from the Porters, secrets that now present a danger to the Porters and to the world in general. Eventually, Isaac defiantly stands up to Gutenberg, with unhappily predictable results. 

     A secondary story thread involves Isaac's mentoring of a young libriomancer named Jeneta, whose most fascinating characteristic is that she can practice libriomancy with e-books, something Isaac finds impossible to do. In the epilogue, Jeneta is dragged into the aftermath of the action of this book, so we can be sure that in book 3, Isaac will be called upon to rescue her. Also left hanging is the situation with the Devourers, who are the insane, magic-eating spirits of long-dead sorcerers who want to get back into this world. We met them in Libriomancer when they attacked Isaac, and they play a huge part in the plot of this book as well. 

     For me, this was a weaker book than Libriomancer, which I loved. Although the primary story line is compelling, there are a few plot problems. In the previous book (if I'm remembering correctly), Isaac could pull out objects from books, but they had to be small enough in size to fit through the book-size "portal" he pulls them through. In this book, Isaac is able to bend the reality of his magic so that he can pull out much larger things (mostly weapons). Also, the overwhelming number of books that he uses is dizzying, particularly since he always pauses to explain which book he is using and why. After a certain point, this is more annoying than informative, and it slows the action down to a crawl. This also means that Isaac has access to just about everything in every book ever written—no matter its size. So then, why can't he just pull something out to win the day every time he's in danger? To get past that problem, Hines had to build in situations in which Isaac's magic was nullified temporarily, which adds to the complexity of the plot—but not always in a good way.

     Isaac is a likable enough lead character, although he's not as strong as I'd like him to be. Too many times, he finds himself on the verge of upchucking in the face of dangerous and/or gruesome scenes and situations. His relationship with Lena is incredibly strange, and their scenes of passion are painful to read. As I wrote in my review of Libriomancer, both Isaac and the series would be better off if Lena and Isaac's relationship was a platonic partnership rather than a love match. 

     Regarding the cover art, whichI guessis supposed to represent Lena: Here is Isaac's description of Lena: "Short and heavyset, with large eyes and dark lips...Her skin was the rich brown of oiled oak. a single black braid hung to the middle of her back." (p. 15) So...Either the artist did not read the book, or the publisher felt that an accurate illustration of Lena wouldn't sell as many books. 

     Note: In the story, Jeneta spends the summer at Camp Aazhawigiizhigokwe. At first, I figured that Hines made up the name, but a Google search turned up the information that this is the name of an Ojibwa warrior woman who lived in northern Wisconsin in the mid-1800s. Click HERE or HERE for more information. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Codex Born.

                           NOVEL 3:  Unbound                           
     For five hundred years, the Porters have concealed the existence of magic from the world. Now, old enemies have revealed the Porters’ secrets, and an even greater threat lurks in the shadows. The would-be queen Meridiana, banished for a thousand years, has returned in the body of a girl named Jeneta Aboderin. She seeks an artifact created by Pope Sylvester II, a bronze prison that would grant her the power to command an army of the dead. Michigan librarian Isaac Vainio is powerless to stop her, having been stripped of his power and his place among the Porters by Johannes Gutenberg himself. But Isaac is determined to regain his magic and to rescue his former student Jeneta. With no magic of his own, Isaac must delve into the darker side of black-market magic, where he will confront beings better left undisturbed, including the sorcerer Juan Ponce de Leon. 

     With his loyal fire-spider Smudge, dryad warrior Lena Greenwood, and psychiatrist Nidhi Shah, Isaac races to unravel a mystery more than a thousand years old as competing magical powers battle to shape the future of the world. He will be hunted by enemies and former allies alike, and it will take all his knowledge and resourcefulness to survive as magical war threatens to spread across the globe. Isaac’s choices will determine the fate of his friends, the Porters, the students of Bi Sheng, and the world. Only one thing is certain: even if he finds a way to restore his magic, he can’t save them all. 

     The publisher's blurb does a fine job of summarizing the plot, so I'll use my review space to analyze why this terrific libriomancy premise has gone so stale and—to be brutally frank—boring. First, I want to congratulate Hines for coming up with the terrific idea of giving his hero the ability to use the contents of books as weapons and tools. Libriomancy is a fantastic mythology. But having come up with this great idea, Hines appears to have used up all of his creative juices. Most of the problems in this series come from the author's continuing inability to fully develop the lead characters and his failure to write dialogue that flows naturally among those characters. There are also problems with the plotting, particularly in this book.

Problem 1: The characters are so poorly drawn that it is difficult to visualize them, much less sympathize with them. Contributing to this problem is the fact that Hines doesn't provide much access to their inner thoughts and emotions. Even his hero, Isaac, comes across as a one-dimensional stereotype—a socially and emotionally clueless man-boy who rarely shows any hint of self-awareness that might give the reader an insight into his character. Most of Isaac's interior monologues have to do with the action plot, not with any deep thoughts about his personal relationships. Even when Isaac gets a heartbreaking letter from his brother, Hines chooses not to have Isaac react to it at all. The author is also quite skimpy on physical descriptions, so we don't have many clues on which to base our imagination-fueled character images (except for the fact that Lena is heavy-set with thick black hair and skin that can turn into tree bark at will—I kept picturing a female Paul Bunyan). The author's reliance on Isaac's first-person narrative voice exacerbates this problem of character development for all of the supporting characters. 
Problem 2: The three-way romantic alliance continues to be weird and very awkward. Poor Lena was created to fulfill the sexual wishes of her lovers (Isaac and Dr. Nidhi Shah, a female psychiatrist). All of the scenes that hint at sex or romance among them are so awkwardly written that they are painful to read. I kept skipping over the dialogue among the three because it rarely was important to the plot and it invariably triggered an "Ewwww" response.
Problem 3: The action plot, which involves finding and figuring out an ancient puzzle poem and then using that knowledge to destroy an ancient evil spirit, is relatively straightforward, but very bumpy in its execution. Situations and characters are dumped into the narrative for no good reason, never to be seen again (like Euphemia and Carl and the swimming pool, not to mention the trip to outer space). I do give Hines credit for reaching back to book one's moon trip (which, at the time, I thought was ridiculous) and giving it a purpose in the climactic closing to this book. But then, after Isaac makes use of his moon-trip magic by stashing a magical object there, it turns out that he could have put the object anywhere because his fellow Porters find it immediately. Consequently, I still think that the moony element is silly. There isn't really much action in this book. The characters mostly hide out in seedy hotel rooms strategizing and peering out the windows waiting to be attacked. Finally, Hines brings the book to a hasty close with a stale showdown scene that has a "seen-it-before" feel to it all the way to the end. 

     The two most entertaining elements of the book are the words and antics of Juan Ponce de Leon, the wily sorcerer who joins up with Isaac to take down the evil goddess, and the brief vignettes that Hines inserts between the regular chapters showing what's going on out there in the real world now that people know that magic is real. Without Ponce and the worldview chapters, this book would have been unreadable.

     I truly wish that this series was as good as its mythology, but that is just not the case. From this point on, I'll update the title list and include the publisher's blurbs for upcoming books, but I won't be reading and reviewing any more books in this series. Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Unbound on its page, where you can click on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

                         NOVEL 4:  Revisionary                         
When Isaac Vainio helped to reveal magic to the world, he dreamed of a utopian future, a new millennium of magical prosperity. One year later, things aren't going quite as he'd hoped. 

An organization known as Vanguard, made up of magical creatures and ex-Porters, wants open war with the mundane world. Isaac's own government is incarcerating "potential supernatural enemies" in prisons and internment camps. And Isaac finds himself targeted by all sides. 

It's a war that will soon envelop the world, and the key to victory may lie with Isaac himself, as he struggles to incorporate everything he's learned into a new, more powerful form of libriomancy. Surrounded by betrayal and political intrigue, Isaac and a ragtag group of allies must evade pursuit both magical and mundane, expose a conspiracy by some of the most powerful people in the world, and find a path to a better future. But what will that future cost Isaac and the ones he loves?

No comments:

Post a Comment