Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Magic of the Written Word: Jim Hines' Libriomancer

It’s possible that there are writers out there who don’t love books. Possible, because nearly everything is, but I don’t think it’s very likely.  Even if those writers exist, Jim C. Hines is not one of them. Libriomancer, the most recent book by Hines, is an entertaining love letter to the written word, and an examination of the power of fiction.

Isaac Vainio is a Libriomancer, a member of a secret organization founded centuries ago by Johannes Gutenberg. Libriomancers have the power to make items described in books manifest in the real world. If it exist in the pages of a book, and can fit between the margins of the physical text, a libriomancer can bring it into being.

If you’re anything like me, upon learning this, your brain immediately began racing with the thoughts of all the cool things you would pull out of a book’s pages if you could practice libriomancy. It would be amazing, right? And Hines manages to capture the joy in this sort of literary magic in the opening pages of the book. As much as Isaac is thrown quickly into peril, Hines does a great job of letting us see the coolness of the magic that gets him out. The world building is very strong.

But all magic has a dark side, and Hines explores that as well, and this is where things get a bit uncomfortable. If you pull a living thing from a book, that living thing is defined by the way it was written. A character whose nature doesn’t allow them to make choices, but instead requires them to serve someone else’s needs? That’s a problem. It’s a problem that Hines – and his characters, Isaac in particular – wrestle with over the course of Libriomancer. I may not always agree with the resolution, but Hines ought to be given full credit for not shying away from these issues (which a lesser writer might well have done), and for addressing them in intelligent and compassionate fashion.

The core conflict of Libriomancer is the archetypal one of power and responsibility. The book argues that this is especially true for creators, and make no mistake, libriomancy is type of creation. If you have the power to make something, you have the responsibility to think about what it is you are making. Still, there will always be consequences beyond what’s easily imagined.

This is not to say that Libriomancer is a heavy read. It’s not. It’s fun, and occasionally silly, and full of small details and in-jokes that will appeal to those of us who think books are already the best magic of all. Hines has clearly done his research, and knows when to leave the boring bits out. The story moves quickly and there’s plenty of action. While this is the first of the Magic ex Libris series, the book works solidly as a stand-alone. The major threads are wrapped up. Libriomancer is a fun book, full of magic. And it comes with a bibliography, in case you want to practice further magic on your own.

By Kat Howard