“My name is Isaac Vainio,” I said. “You smashed my library. Prepare to die.”
Jim Hines’ Libriomancer came as a surprise. I found it in the new books section of the library while hunting for something new to read. I’d never heard of the author, but it didn’t sound half bad so I gave it a whirl. By the end I was completely enamored. The entire book came across as an epistle to all geeks and book lovers. After all, the very premise was that you could reach into a book and pull an object from their world into ours. And it had Gutenberg as the head of this secret organization.
To say that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy of the next book is a bit of understatement. But my usual excitement was mixed with positive terror. Because the first book had walked the fine line between brimming with love for all the things I cherish about fantasy and being downright cheesy. Surely any attempt to expand on the first book would cause this balance to shift. This went beyond concerns about a rehashed plot and remarkably familiar villains. It was about the magic.
How many times can a spider burst into flames and not die before the reader finds it a cheap trick? How many superguns and blasters can you pull out of paperback sci fi novels before it stops seeming awesome and starts feeling like cheating? How many more famous titles can be name dropped before we roll our eyes and walk away?
Apparently, a lot.
Codex Born picks up the story of Isaac Vainio, librarian by choice and libriomancer by birth. He can reach into books and pull out any object that is smaller than the dimensions of the cover. There is a covert organization of people who can do this who spend a great deal of time trying to control the damage caused by a). people who didn’t know they had special abilities until something comes out of their book, b). evil or rogue libriomancers, and c). idiots who don’t think through the repercussion of what they’re bringing into our world. That’s how we got vampires.
Unlike many crazy adventure stories, this second one is slightly more subdued. Instead of going the bigger is better route, Hines pulls back a bit and addresses the fallout from the first book. Isaac has learned that not all the rules that govern his magic are absolute. He’s also learning that many of them are there for a reason. He’s experimenting, and it’s costing him, and much of the book is about him regaining balance and, to some degree, faith. Meanwhile, the big bad from the first book is still unconquered and continuing its path of corruption. Smudge the fire spider seems to be the only character who came out of the first book unworried and unscathed.
Naturally, there’s still plenty of action and plenty of magic flying around, but Codex Born remains grounded in the things that made Libriomancer stand out. Hines knows when to slow down. He’s really good about not bogging things down with unnecessary details, but he also knows what we the readers will eat up. You don’t really care when the action pauses while a libromancer restocks his bag with favorite titles. Or when they pull off a spectacular save and stop to explain how they took it from Terry Pratchett’s Mort. (I still don’t know how this series manages not to have copyright problems.) And when there’s a couple pages describing the battle dress of a group of libromancers, Hines seems to know we’re sitting there taking notes and planning out our next cosplay. I am seriously going to make the one with books hanging from a utility belt by chains.
However, that’s the fun part of the book. Hines has focused the entire series, and particularly Codex Born on the stereotypes of women in speculative literature. But he does it by embracing them. Instead of countering with a well written character of his own, he brings a woman from one of the squickiest of pulp fiction books into our world. Lena was written to be completely obedient. Her appearance even changes based on her lover’s preferences. And watching her become a “real” character and try to cope with the world while wrestling with the rules written into her by her story is nothing short of nasty. Hines has thrown down the gauntlet to everyone who has ever glossed over such a character with the words, “it’s okay because it’s not real.” The fact that it is not okay in or out of a book pours from these pages. Codex Born is perhaps the most eloquent treaty on the characterization of women in science fiction and fantasy that I’ve ever read. And the fact that when his damsel isn’t trying to overcome the limitations imposed on her by her book, she’s riding around on a motorcycle and whacking things into pieces with razor sharp wooden bokens doesn’t hurt either.
Everyone who has ever been caught up in the magic of a book should read this series. There’s laughter, bibliophiles galore, and serious introspection about what draws us to the speculative. Do yourself a favor though, and start with the first book, Libriomancer. Sometimes this doesn’t matter so much, but I can’t imagine trying to read Codex Born without the first book. If you have read Libriomancer, you are definitely going to want to check out this sequel. There’s more libriomancers, clockwork bugs, and an enlarged role for Smudge. If you’re in the mood for funny, read Codex Born. If you’re in the mood for nerdy, read Codex Born. If you’re in the mood for serious, read Codex Born. If you’re …oh, just go read the book.