Libriomancer (Magic Ex Libris No.1) – Jim C. Hines
DAW Books, 2012
For over two years Isaac Vainio has been an ordinary librarian. Not many people know he moonlights as a cataloguer for an ancient organisation, or that he has magic that makes the books around him a veritable armoury. He is no longer allowed to use that magic, except in emergencies. When three vampires show up at the library looking for trouble, Isaac has the perfect excuse, but that is only the beginning. The organisation he serves is under attack and the rot goes further than he could have imagined. If power corrupts, magic can drive you insane.
I wanted to like this book. For the first few chapters, I did. The magic system is interesting and reasonably well-defined, Isaac is a likeable enough protagonist and the story moves at a good pace. However, the backstory it inflicts on its main female character, Lena, is not only staggeringly tacky, it’s completely unnecessary and the resolution is too simplistic. I’ve explained my thoughts in more detail in the brackets below. The series continues with Codex Born, but I very much doubt I will be reading it.
(SPOILER: The idea of magic in the Libriomancer universe is that a sufficiently talented magic user, trained or otherwise, can reach into almost any book and take out a non-living object – with notable exceptions. Lena is a dryad grown from an accidentally discarded acorn. So far, no problem. Unfortunately, Lena is not just any dryad; she comes from a 1960s sexual slavery fantasy and is programmed by the writer to alter herself completely to suit the desires of her lover, including physical transformation. Even worse, said lover will be whoever she spends the most time with.
If all that’s not problematic enough – and for pity’s sake, it is – the narrative insists that all other characters should simply accept this as Lena’s nature and not challenge its inherent unhealthiness. The best attempt she makes at controlling her own destiny is to take two lovers at once, hoping to develop her own character between their conflicting desires, which is a rubbish solution to a psychological crisis. Also, Lena’s ‘programming’ has already been proven to make her untrustworthy when those divided loyalties were tested. Even without considering those obstacles, Lena’s behaviour is startlingly selfish. She proposes the arrangement in front of her current lover without talking to Isaac individually first, gives him about five minutes to think it over, then makes out with each one in front of the other without allowing them any time to get used to the idea. This does not seem like the best start to me.
To give Hines some credit, Lena’s inability to refuse sex is not exploited by Isaac or anyone else within the events of this story, and it does end with her attempt to take some control over her life. Even according to the narrative’s magical boundaries, however, she could have been given more free will. Hell, Isaac’s pet spider has more sense of self than she does. From what I’ve heard, Hines is a genuine feminist, but if he was trying to deconstruct a sexist trope with Lena, he fails to make it work. To be honest, I very much doubt anyone could.)