This review contains spoilers.
Jim C. Hines’ Libriomancer has a premise calculated to appeal to every book lover ever: libriomancers are magicians who can summon objects to life from books. Not people, apparently, because their brains turn to mush. And not anything that wouldn’t fit through a hole the size of an open book. And really powerful objects that would ruin the world – like Tolkien’s Ring, for instance – are “locked” inside their books by the head libriomancer, Johannes Gutenberg (yes, the Gutenberg), who has apparently discovered the secret to eternal life and promptly locked it away again.
So. Our Hero is Isaac, an ex-libriomancer who was retired from the field after an attempt at reining in unauthorised libriomancy went horribly wrong. As the novel begins, he’s working in a library specialising in SFF, cataloguing books that contain potentially useful weapons for libriomancers. This may sound like the awesomest job in the world to us mere mortals, but of course Isaac misses magic. Luckily for him, some vampires rock up and attack the library he’s working in, as well as a number of prominent magic-users, and he’s pulled back into the field to try and work out why the vampires have broken their delicate peace with humanity.
It was probably inevitable that Libriomancer would disappoint me – a premise like that is fiendishly hard to live up to. I think my disappointment boils down to the fact that the novel doesn’t do very much with its various intertexts – that is, it’s not particularly self-aware about its status as an SFF text in explicit conversation with the SFF texts Isaac uses for his libriomancy. That’s partly because the rules of libriomancy, and the demands of the plot, don’t allow Isaac to summon anything much more interesting than fancy SFnal guns; and, diverting as the sudden appearance of a lightsaber is (even if Hines isn’t allowed to call it that because of copyright), it turns out that weapons look pretty much the same whichever novel you summon them from.
The one piece of literary criticism Libriomancer does indulge in felt vaguely problematic to me. Or, rather, it fell into that interesting mental category labelled “I don’t know what to do with this”. One of Isaac’s sidekicks is Lena, a dryad from what Hines describes as a subgenre of mild SFF 1960s erotica. (I don’t know if this is an actual thing, by the way, since I can’t remember the name of the author Hines name-checks. Let’s assume that it is for the purposes of this review.) Lena’s been written to be the perfect lover for whoever her romantic partner happens to be – so her appearance and her personality both change to suit them. (I can’t remember now why Lena is exempt from the brain-turning-to-mush that afflicts most fictional characters coming to the real world.) At the beginning of the novel, she’s in a relationship with a woman called Nidhi Shah, a therapist who’s kidnapped by the vampires. Believing Nidhi dead, Lena propositions Isaac (who, I got the impression, lives several hours’ drive from Nidhi), because – get this – she thinks he’s her best option.
Werl…Isaac is inoffensive enough, but for this literally perfect woman to stake her entire being on him as the best possible romantic partner feels like the most enormous wish-fulfilment fantasy – not to mention the tangled issues of consent and free will spiralling around here.
It turns out, of course, that Nidhi aten’t dead. But now Lena is magically attached to both of them! Whatever shall she do?
The answer is, in fact, unexpected, and probably the best way of dealing with an immensely problematic plotline: she shall date both of them (no, not in a threesome-orgy-male-fantasy type way), and so, being not quite perfect for either of them, find something like autonomy in the cracks between their desires.
I mean, I do appreciate this thinking outside the box of monogamous heterosexual romantic normativity. And I also appreciate that the point of Lena’s storyline is to point up how problematic the idea of “the perfect woman” is. I just think that this particular novel is not really up to handling it. For one thing, Isaac is incredibly creepy towards Lena: while slightly (but only slightly) uninhibited on truth drugs, he tells her (in front of one of her colleagues):
This is not how I used to fantasize about you turning up on my doorstep.
Uh…inappropriate much? And, however much Lena may appear to go along with this behaviour, she’s magically obliged to do so. Isaac’s creepiness never gets dealt with; I got the impression I was meant to read it as slightly inept flirting, which it is not.
Add to that the fact that Hines’ prose is serviceable at best and wincingly clumsy at worst, and that he seems more interested in explosions and vampires than in unpacking the intricacies of Lena’s situation, and it begins to feel like the romance subplot is something of an afterthought tacked onto the story Hines really wanted to tell. Essentially, there’s a lot in Libriomancer that demands significantly more attention than it ever gets; so everything feels underserved.
TL;DR: I shouldn’t read books that haven’t been recommended to me. Because usually there’s a reason why they haven’t.