RogerBW's Blog

Libriomancer, Jim C. Hines 06 December 2014

2012: Isaac Vainio used to be a libriomancer, someone who can reach into books and pull out the objects depicted there; but things went bad and now he works at a small town library. Until the vampires show up. Minor spoilers will follow.

I think the problem is that this is a fantasy rather than a science fiction book, but then it tries to be science fiction again. Which makes no sense, because I'm abusing both terms. What I mean by "fantasy" is not a question of subject matter; it's a mode in which the underpinnings of the universe are left un-examined. There may be magic and gods and things, but they basically just work, and nobody's looking for loopholes or weird combinations. Meanwhile the mode I will label "science fiction" is all about playing with the toys: why does it work this way? If you combine this and that and the other thing, can you build something more effective than any of the individual parts?

So first of all Libriomancer throws lots of cool stuff at us, along with basically arbitrary rules: things in books become accessible when lots of people read the book, but it has to be that specific edition of the book that you're trying to use. Try to pull out people, and they go mad. Use a book too much, and it gets "charred" and becomes dangerous. You can't pull anything out that wouldn't physically fit through the book. (Which I think is the reason for the "specific edition" rule, or you could just have a huge version of a book privately printed.) The vampires happen when someone reaches into a vampire book and gets accidentally bitten. Some books are "locked" because for example the One Ring would be just too powerful. And so on. Lots of complicated special cases.

But then the story crosses into the science-fictional mode, as it turns out that large parts of the background knowledge Isaac has taken for granted (and only just shared with the reader) are complete rubbish, and this is a world in which experimentation is possible. But apparently Isaac is the only person ever to have thought of it.

Our villain here has gone to the trouble of writing, and privately circulating, a book which contains the specific thing he's invented. The good-guy libriomancers (there's apparently a whole organisation of them, though we don't see very many in this book) haven't done this before because "writing is hard". Couldn't one of them think of approaching a best-selling author and bribing him to put the thing they wanted into his next book?

It seems to me that things happen too fast. We're introduced to Isaac, the basics of libriomancy, several different sorts of vampire, the Porters (the good guys, in theory, a secret society founded by Johannes Gutenberg after he had invented this form of magic), a war getting started between vampires and Porters, and a dryad martial artist who's obviously going to be Isaac's love interest. All in the first chapter.

Unfortunately, nobody here is really much of a developed character. Isaac is a Worn-Out Hero straight from the (early) Harry Dresden mould. Lena the dryad is a character pulled out of a Gor ripoff who is built to be a slave to whomever she loves. (Isaac does at least show signs of not being altogether OK with this, and indeed this is some of the better characterisation for him, but it's all a bit Piers Anthony for my taste.) Everyone else is even less fleshed-out. The plot is mostly a series of action scenes, with some potentially interesting but minimally-described research between them.

Great idea for a magic system and world setup. Shame that actually developing it turned out to be too much work. If this form of magic were somehow new to the world, rather than being several hundred years old, maybe I could deal with the idea of Isaac as the first person to try things, but as it is: well, if this organisation's so great as to last a few hundred years, how come it falls apart under a fairly obvious threat? If it were going to do that, why didn't it do it earlier?

It's OK, I suppose, but reading it felt like eating a tube of Pringles: I started to regret it almost before I'd finished.

Followed by Codex Born, but I shan't be in a hurry to read it.

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