Magic Ex Libri Book 1
Jim C. Hines
DAW Books, 321 pages
Urban Fantasy (some mature themes)
Isaac Vainio has more problems than just dealing with Lena Greenwood, a bokken-wielding magical wood nymph who has her sights set on him as her next partner. Isaac, a librarian in Michigan by day, is also in the research department of a secret organization of book magicians called Die Zwelf Portenære, or as they are commonly known today: the Porters. His field colleagues are being killed, their founder and leader, Johannes Gutenberg (yes: THE Johannes Gutenberg), is missing, and Isaac’s library has just been attacked by some very angry vampires who think he’s in on a plot to eliminate them from the world.
The Porters organization was founded by Johannes Gutenberg, who discovered libriomancy, or book magic, over 500 years ago. A libriomancer can bring almost anything they wish from the pages in a book into the real world, given a few limitations. Gutenberg used his magic to drink from the Holy Grail, thus making him immortal, before locking his famous Bible and many other potentially dangerous books from use (or misuse). Much like the Ministry of Magic in the Harry Potter series, the Porters focus on maintaining order among the magical creatures and keeping the knowledge of magic a secret from the general public, which is a growing threat as magical populations are expanding.
Isaac had pushed his magic past its limits two years ago. A rookie in the field and full of righteous anger, he went after a bunch of zombies alone. In a last-ditch effort to save himself from a massive attack, he materialized a weapon using only his memory of a story — without the book. Although he was able to destroy the zombies, it was a reckless decision that almost destroyed him as well. After healing from his magical burns and a full psychiatric evaluation, his field work was ended and he was assigned a spot in the much safer Porter’s research department instead. With the advent of high-speed printing, thousands of new books are published each year, and his job is to read and catalog them for their potential threats or usefulness before distribution.
“We get review copies of every new book from the major publishers and most of the small presses. We usually catch and lock the troublesome ones before they’re released to the public, though Harry Potter gave us some trouble.” J. K. Rowling had received a visit from Gutenberg himself, asking her to eliminate that damned time-turner from future books.
Lena’s arrival is no casual visit from an admirer. It’s her strategic attempt to establish a new bond with someone she trusts before her lover, Dr. Nidhi Shaw, is converted into a vampire by the blood-sucking gang who kidnapped her. If they turn Nidhi into one of their own, Lena will have no choice but to follow suit due to the rules of magic that govern her life. Lena believes that by taking a new partner, it may protect her from becoming formidable foe against the Porters. However, she meets some resistance from Isaac when he learns about her plans.
“Showing up on an acquaintance’s doorstep and asking him to become your lover…your mate…isn’t normal. Not for humans.”
“Normal?” she repeated. “Yesterday you fed me cake from Wonderland so we could ride your spider into a magical basement and fight a vampire.”
Unfortunately, the recent attacks on the Porters left the field force a little short-handed, and Isaac is promoted to active duty to find Gutenberg, rescue Dr. Shaw, and find out who is really behind the attacks that threaten to end relations with the vampires in an all-out war of magical creatures. As Isaac and Lena join forces, they learn that the real target is the Porters’ secret archives, which holds the originals of the books that Gutenberg locked. Whoever is behind this means business, and as Isaac pushes his magical knowledge beyond reasonable limits, he stumbles upon a much deeper and more sinister presence than he bargained for, putting himself at risk of being consumed by it.
This story is Harry Dresden meets Thursday Next (and if you haven’t read Jim Butcher or Jasper Fforde, I highly recommend them both). Jim C. Hines has created a world where people with the right talents can reach into a book and manifest an object for use in this universe. That’s how Isaac got his pet fire spider, Smudge, who was Tuckerized from another of Hines’ books. The candy-loving fire spider is Isaac’s loyal pet and a pretty good danger detector, who gets excited and morphs through various levels of combustion, corresponding to the danger present. Smudge isn’t damaged by his flames, but if he’s sitting on Isaac’s shoulder or a stack of books when his warning goes off, the results are either funny or downright disastrous, depending on your perspective. When he’s not in his special flame-resistant cage that hangs from Isaac’s belt, Smudge perches on a special trivet on the dashboard of Isaac’s car, which serves two purposes: it’s a great lookout position, and in the winter, he doubles as a pretty good windshield defroster.
The characters in this series are each interesting and bring their own quirks and depth to the story. Hines interjects classic, contemporary, and fictional literary references to bring forth a multitude of clever objects that helps Isaac get through this action-packed adventure. From Homer’s Odysseus, to a dog-eared paperback edition of Star Wars, Isaac knows his resources and comes prepared with book-marked copies in his arsenal-toting brown trench coat, courtesy of the tenth Doctor from Doctor Who (the pockets are bigger on the inside).
As with all good fantasy/fiction stories, there are a few rules that create the world surrounding libriomancy:
- Size matters. You can’t bring anything from a book that wouldn’t fit through the physical size of the book itself. That means you can’t bring an army of vampires or other large creatures into this world.
- Page selection is critical. If you intend to extract a weapon or other item from a book, do it when there is no danger present in the story. Even though you can’t bring a vampire or a rabid animal through a book due to their size, you could be attacked and become infected while your hand is in the book.
- Libriomancy follows the laws of conservation of energy. If you take something from a book, you should put it back when you are finished. Overused or abused books show signs of charring, and can be rendered useless for future use, or until repairs occur either through time or by magic.
- Performing magic makes you sensitive (i.e., vulnerable) to magic. If a libriomancer performs too much magic in a short time, he might be charred, or worse, he could lose his sense of self. Many a Porter has been consumed by the characters in the books they accessed too often or too frequently, going mad and channeling many personalities, not all benevolent, to say the least.
As you might guess, most libriomancers find out about their abilities by accident, usually when they are young. Imagine sitting down with a new book by your favorite author and hearing the voices calling to you from within, or putting your hand into the page and plucking something right out of the scene you are reading. If these gifted people aren’t taught about their magic early, many of them think that they are crazy or realize that they can use their ability against others. In either case, their memories must be modified and their magic locked from them for protection. Now imagine if you were one of these people and suddenly remember after many years what had been taken from you, but don’t fully comprehend the reasons why or the consequences of your extreme actions to get revenge….
I enjoyed this first installment of the Magic ex Libris series by Jim Hines, who won the Hugo award for best fan writer 2012. He’s created a clever, action-packed, and well-developed world that was easy to lose myself in-–way past my bed time. I look forward to learning more about the complex characters that he has developed and how they will move forward in their equally complex relationships. Book number two, Codex Born, is on my reading list for the very near future.