There are a lot of urban fantasy mystery series out there, and after a while, they can all start sounding awfully samey. Investigative protagonist with some level of magical aptitude. Run-ins with vampires, werewolves, and other sorts of supernatural creatures. Noirish tropes. Gradually building mythology-heavy background story arc involving mysterious forces. To be honest, overall, I’ve grown a bit tired of them.
And then I read the first book in Jim C. Hines’ newish Magic Ex Libris series, Libriomancer (the second, Codex Born, only just came out recently), and was delighted to be reminded that there are still some fresh tricks to be had in this genre. The concept behind Libriomancer actually might be one of the cleverest I’ve encountered in any urban fantasy. It centers on mages who have the ability to reach into any book and pull items out of it, like Mary Poppins reaching into her carpetbag. In the world of Magic Ex Libris, the shared belief of hundreds or thousands of people reading a book can actually cause its story to come alive, at least within the confines of their pages. I can’t imagine that there is an avid reader alive who can’t relate to the impulses that drive these series: the sense of wonder in being able to reach into, for example, a book about King Arthur and pull out Excalibur.
Another one of Hines’ smartest, practically meta innovations in the series is how he handles vampires. Vampires are one of the most prevalent mainstays of both urban fantasy and horror fiction in general. You simply can’t get away from them. And practically every author wants to distinguish their vampires from everyone else’s by tweaking their powers and abilities. Some authors’ vampires can walk in daylight, or even–heaven forfend–sparkle, others burn in the sun; some can be killed by a wooden stake or cross, while others are completely immune; some are dazzlingly beautiful or handsome, others are hideous monstrosities; some have psychic powers, some don’t, and so on and so forth.
Well, this has actually become somewhat of a problem in the Magic Ex Libris world, because due to all of these various authors dreaming up all of their countless permutations of vampires, all of these different sorts now exist in the real world. So you might find yourself fighting a superpowered Meyerii or Sparkler (named for the woman who unleashed Twilight upon the world), or a sire-subservient Sanguinarius Henricus (vampires that had arisen from the pages of Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire/True Blood series), or an old-school Dracula type, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and for whom one’s fighting must be adjusted.
The series centers on a former Libriomancer, Isaac Vainio, who left the Order due to [SPOILERS REDACTED], but, at the start of the first volume, finds his way back in when vampires attack the library he’s working at and he soon realizes that these attacks are becoming more and more widespread, and furthermore, that the head of the Order, Johannes Gutenberg, seems to have gone missing. Yes, that Gutenberg. The concept that the creator of the first printing press is actually an effectively immortal sorcerer who has been working book magic ever since then is absolutely ingenious, and Hines makes him a fascinating, morally ambiguous figure. The more secrets that are unburied about his past, the more complex Isaac’s feelings regarding him become, since many of Gutenberg’s actions in the past are morally questionable at best, though often seemingly done in the name of the greater good. The gradual unfolding of the series’ history is one of its primary pleasures. Oh, and Gutenberg also just so happens to be enemies/frenemies with the also-still-living Ponce de Leon!
Over the course of the series, Isaac also gains a most unique companion in the form of Lena Greenwood, a dryad. What makes her fascinating is that she actually comes from a fictional 1950s sci-fi novel that demonstrates the worst excesses of misogynistic 1950s sci-fi novels. She was created to fulfill the desires of men, and her personality, features, likes, and dislikes actually change depending on whoever happens to be her lover at the time. Hines subverts this dynamic from the start by having her current lover be a woman but even more so, utilizes Lena as a character both to comment on women-as-objects and the male gaze that occurs far too commonly in pop culture–not always as obviously or as explicitly as with Lena’s situation, but in thousands of different scenarios, through popular fiction, film, TV, etc.–as well as to flip the situation on its head in some truly surprising and impressive ways.
It’s quite meta, actually, as Lena is a female character created by an enlightened, modern-day male writer but within the book-within-the-book, was created by a male chauvinist to fulfill his sexual fantasies, and as such, on one level, is a deconstruction of sexism in sci-fi but, on another, rebels at every turn against being considered a simple literary trick. Hines manages to make her a strong, obstinate character in her own right who, by the end of the first book, comes up with a brilliant solution to her identity dilemma, making a bold statement that I haven’t seen handled in such an upfront, straightforward, mature manner in any other story I can recall.
When it comes down to it, Libriomancer and Codex Born are a whole lot of fun. (Oh, another thing: Isaac has a pet “fire spider,” Smudge, who actually comes from Hines’ earlier, comedic Jig the Goblin series!) They may not–ironically–be what a snooty reader might refer to as “literature,” but they are often exemplary urban fantasy that manages to break the general mold of the genre by tweaking the format, metanarratively speaking, and which demonstrates more unfettered, childlike awe and imagination than most urban fantasy I’ve read. For fans not only of fantasy but of reading fantasy, who get a keen sense of joy at the tactile sensation of holding a book, turning the pages, and plunging into the story within it, this series is practically indispensable.
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