Format: hard cover, 1st edition, 2014
Reading Time: about 6 hours
The second Magic Ex Libris book, Codex Born, proved to be the spark that helped me jump back into reading fantasy and resume work on this blog. I had high hopes that Jim C. Hines had another amazing story to tell. Was he successful? Read on to see my answer to that question, including minor spoilers, but first let’s take a look at a few other reviews out in cyberspace (and watch out because they have some spoilers from the previous novels too!).
From the Mind of C.E. Tracy: “As it should be with the third book in a series, the story is much more developed. And it deals with much darker themes than the first two. I like a bit (or a lot) of darkness. It makes it seem more realistic. Not that there can be much realism with vampires and trapped demons and such, but more so with human nature. How far would you go to right a wrong? To save a friend? To protect? That’s what Isaac is up against…the only major character of note is Meridiana. There were plenty of minor characters, but they were never really around long enough to be particularly noteworthy. Meridiana is an interesting character. I found her background story very intriguing. While her back story as a person is fiction (a twin to Holy Roman Emperor Otto III is mentioned but nothing else), her imprisoned form has more legitimacy. Pope Sylvester II was rumoured to have made a pact with a demon name Meridiana and she was in the brazen head he supposedly built…it made a great back story to the quite evil character. We do also get a better look at Ponce de Leon. He has appeared in the other books, but this time we get to see more of him. I like how he and Gutenberg all almost literal opposites. He is more lax and free where Gutenberg is strict and rigid. He also seems more “human” (take that as you will).”
Marlene Harris of Reading Reality says: “The pace of this story is utterly relentless – breaks for breath are few and far between, both for the reader and for the characters in the story. At first, that’s because Isaac feels so guilty that he can’t let himself stop, and later it’s because once he gets close to the forces of evil, they don’t let up on their attacks on him. In Unbound, as the title indicates, everything fall apart. The structures and restrictions that the Porters have relied upon for centuries all come unglued. And while in the end that might be a good thing, in the short and medium term, all that results is chaos. It’s ugly. Well written and totally absorbing, but ugly to watch. It’s obvious that the future is not going to be pretty, even if everyone survives to see it. Isaac, as usual, generally goes in with half a plan, half a prayer, and a whole lot of luck. Sometimes he doesn’t so much succeed as fail upwards. He also has no compunction about sacrificing himself for what he sees as the greater good, even if he might be wrong. One of the interesting things going on is that Isaac makes friends, where Gutenberg seems to have mostly made either enemies or sycophants. The contrast in those two styles is going to have a marked effect on the future…it will keep you on the edge of your seat every minute.”
Paul Weimer of SF Signal states: “…Unbound unflinchingly (sometimes to a fault) explores the depression that Isaac undergoes as a result. This is an extremely difficult act to pull off, as exploring a depressed protagonist makes for a main narrative that can have problems getting off the ground. As a sufferer of depression, I intensely felt Isaac’s plight…the entity revealed in the second novel is still plotting to take over the world. Her motivations beyond that sort of suzerainty aren’t always quite clear, and to be honest, feel slightly under done. She’s a credible threat from a power perspective, especially given the fractured response to her machinations. The danger is real and in the encounters we see her, there are some excellent combat scenes showing just what the long trapped sorceress and her minions can do…Fantasy, as a genre, can be the conservative sibling to Science Fiction. Science Fiction is about changes – good, bad and otherwise – happening to society, to Humanity, and how Humanity or just an individual deals with it: the development of teleportation; the discovery of an artifact the size of Earth’s orbit around a distant star; crashing into a hitherto unknown region of space and dealing with a variety of alien aliens, with you the only human, etc. Fantasy, by comparison, is often a story of Restoration, or fighting a rearguard action, of trying to set the world, gone skew, back to rights. There is power when fantasy decides to play in the themes of science fiction and own the possibilities of change and development “in real time”. Unbound taps into that, and I give Hines enormous credit for it.”
Much like Codex Born, Unbound struggles with pacing at the beginning of the story. Part of this is due to the difficulty in how Isaac collects information without using magic, and part of it is a focus on Isaac’s loss of magic and his feeling of failure from losing Jeneta, the latter of which Paul points out above. I must say that reading about depression, for me, is uncomfortable, and while it has a purpose and I see the the value in exploring that state of mind in a character, I’ll be frank in saying I don’t particularly enjoy it. Hines displays a deft hand in making it prominent without overwhelming the story completely. I managed to get through this until the action begins to pick up as Isaac explores a vampire blood bank in space (yes you heard that right) and on his return to Earth lands in Rome to talk to the dead. From this point of the story all hell breaks loose and the action is fast and furious.
The characters of Bi Wei, Johannes Gutenberg and Juan Ponce de Leon have much more prominent roles in this story, and I thought those expanded roles were excellent. These characters, who have lived for several centuries, are very powerful, so it is telling that on multiple occasions they turn to Issac to solve some serious problems…they recognize a greatness within him, and that in turns supports Isaac’s role as the protagonist when by all other definitions he is just one libriomancer among several. Nidhi Shaw gets more page time as well. As a result, Lena does not have as big of a role as she did in the previous novel, but her character was explored in depth in that novel, so its okay for others to shine this time.
One cool feature I liked in this book were the multitude of fantasy creatures that make an appearance: a gorgon, a harpy, a sword-wielding angel, and even an appearance by Frankenstein’s monster! Also, some Dungeons and Dragons magic items show up, which was a great touch. And a flying saucer! Plus a new Harry Potter novel (we wish!) and an unpublished H.G. Wells manuscript…folks, it is simply amazing how much geeky stuff Hines injects into this book. Between each chapter Hines devotes a page where he explores how people would react to the reality of magic…this is done through imaginary news feeds, letters, emails, etc. I enjoyed these brief diversions, all though some are better than others.
Hines tries to strike a balance in limiting the power of Meridiana and the Ghosts (Devourers). Due to the nature of her power, Meridiana has the potential to practically be a god, but that power is somewhat limited by her prison and the fact that Victor Harrison is no longer around. However, Hines actually makes a critical mistake here. Meridiana always seems to be one step ahead of the protagonists and overpowers them, forcing them to flee. There were several points during the story where I wondered why Meridian hadn’t pulled objects from the e-reader to help locate Isaac while he was in hiding, or even to find her own prison…or to do a hundred other things that would have helped her achieve her plans other than just creating monsters and messing with Gutenberg’s spells. It’s kind of a giant-sized hole in the plot: she was capable of doing more but she didn’t, and we don’t know why. About two-thirds into the book, a shocking development happens that I totally wasn’t expecting. It changed the entire nature of the series, and sets up the next novel in the series, Revisionary, to have the potential to be amazing. But I also have reservations…just like the plot hole above, I’m worried that Hines might create another big plot hole in Revisionary, because let’s face it, he can’t think of everything that could happen, only that which fits within his narrative.
In conclusion, Unbound starts slow but picks up steam and then becomes a wild ride to the end. Despite a big plot hole, the copious amounts of action, unraveling of puzzles, and further development of the core characters put Unbound at a level close to that of its predecessors, and it is highly entertaining. It is also a game changer that will take the series in a new direction, and I can’t wait to get there…