You probably know Jim C. Hines as the guy who recreated the absurd poses that women strike on the covers of fantasy novels a while back. But now he's written a new fantasy novel about a guy whose power comes from books — and it's actually way more fun than you could have expected.
There have been other stories about magic coming from books and from stories — and usually, you expect that sort of thing to be fairly meta, to be a meditation on storytelling or the nature of confabulation or whatnot. But Hines just revels in the goofy fun of his premise instead — until he slowly sneaks up on you with a few genuinely dark questions about the nature of power and control.
In Libriomancer, out nowish, Isaac Vainio is part of a secret society of magicians who can pull pretty much anything out of a book — and yes, that includes sonic screwdrivers, light sabers, healing potions, ray guns and all sorts of other insane toys. The only limits are that it has to be a small enough item to fit through the book, and you can't use the same book too many times or it starts to show signs of "char," thus becoming unusuable. People who overuse this magic tend to go a big bonkers, as they start to hear voices from the books in their heads. And certain books are "locked," because the items they contain are too powerful for anyone to possess.
As the novel begins, Isaac has been drummed out of the Porters, his magical society, because he lost control over his magic and made a mistake. He's working at a quiet library in Michigan, when he's attacked by sparkle vampires. And yes, the vampires turn out to be a breed that were created by someone who took material out of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books, and somehow infected a real human with Meyerian vampirism, sparkles and all. Over the course of the book, we meet plenty of other types of vampires who have been turned using blood from Anne Rice books or various other versions of vampire lore — there seem to be hundreds of types of vampires running around, each based on a different piece of popular source material.
Isaac soon learns that the vampire attacks have claimed the lives of some others, including his old friend and mentor, and there's some darker conspiracy at work — one which requires Isaac to return to the world of magic and start reaching into his old books again. He's accompanied by two magical allies: a fire spider named Smudge, and a sexy dryad named Lena.
The thing that's sort of surprising about Libriomancer, especially once you get past the first half, is that it's not especially a comedy — despite the presence of many goofy, silly elements such as vampires based on Stephenie Meyer books. It's geeky as hell, and Isaac basically quotes from or namedrops Doctor Who, Firefly and a ton of other science fiction series in every other line.
But Hines walks the line of keeping the actual story pretty serious, and manages to find enough of an emotional center to the characters that after a while, you stop thinking of it as a silly book and start thinking of it as a dramatic novel with incredibly silly elements. The closest parallel I can think of is classic Peter David: full of zany humor, but with a serious core that holds together. That's a lot harder to do than you might think, and Hines pulls it off.
The actual core of the book is the relationship between Isaac and Lena — and without giving too much away, the two of them wind up in a love triangle that's a lot more interesting and multi-layered than anything Meyer ever managed to come up with. Isaac's relationship with Lena gets to the heart of the book's questions about a type of magic that relies on fiction for its power.
The other thing that's nifty about the book is that it has a pretty well thought out approach to magic, which deepens and develops as the book goes on — it's not just that "anything that's in a book, Isaac can pull out." The magic depends on books being mass-produced and read by a lot of people, to create a field of shared belief big enough to allow a sorcerer to reach into them. And by the end of the book, we've already glimpsed stuff that shows that magic is a lot deeper and less simple than that paradigm suggests. We also learn that the whole "Libriomancy" thing was invented by Johannes Gutenberg, who created the printing press as a means of creating enough identical copies of a book to make that "shared reader belief" thing work properly. It's a neat concept, and one that Hines fleshes out pretty well — especially after we meet Gutenberg's servants, massive metal men that are basically walking movable type presses.
And like a lot of the best fantasy books, Libriomancer is as much about the limits of magic as it is the awesome things you can do with it — although you can do plenty of awesome things, it turns out. The notion that taking too much from books can lead to madness, or to the sorcerer being possessed by fictional characters, is a neat one that I don't think I've seen done before in quite this way. And another theme running through the book is the notion that you can't use magic to make too much of a difference in regular people's lives, or the whole fabric of the world will start to unravel.
But most of all, this book is definitely about, and for, geeks who grew up reading science fiction and fantasy and imagining that they could steal some of the cool toys inside those books. As Hines writes early on:
Every libriomancer I had ever met had one thing in common: we were daydreamers.
Sure, lots of kids imagined what it would be like to be Superman or Wolverine, or secretly tried to use the force to levitate a toy car, but we obsessed over this stuff. Night after night, I had lain awake pondering whether heat vision could be pin-pointed with enough accuracy to kill a mosquito, or whether a lightsaber could be modified to recharge via a regular AC outlet. I fantasized about what I would do if I were ever to develop superpowers. Where would I fly, what global problems would I solve first, where would I go when I needed to get away from it all? (I had eventually decided to build my own private moonbase.)
Some children outgrew such things as they grew up. My daydreams had simply grown more complex.
In a sense, Libriomancer is the lighter, more escapist flipside of books like Jo Walton's Among Others. It's another love letter to science fiction and fantasy, with real emotional weight at the center of it — except this version is a rollicking adventure story full of ridiculous little touches. It's a seriously fun ride for anyone who's loved geeky books their whole life. Including a reading list at the back. [Amazon]