Book Review: Revisionary by Jim C. Hines

revisonary

Format:  hard cover, first edition, 2016

Pages:  342

Reading time:  about 8.5 hours

One sentence synopsis: Isaac has now exposed the world to the presence of magic and supernatural creatures, but now must deal with those who are threatened by this revelation and plan to eliminate that threat.

 

The end is here for the Magic Ex Libris series, aside from a novelette about ancillary character Jeneta entitled Imprinted. Jim C. Hines noted on his website back in 2015 that, barring some unusual circumstances, Revisionary would be the final book in the series as he desired to move on to other projects. In my opinion the sequels have been great, but with a slight decline in quality from each book to the following one. So does the trend reverse with Revisionary? Keep reading to find out, and as always there’s going to be some spoilers, but first, on with the guest reviews…

 

Liz Bourke at Tot.com states: “Hines’ love for speculative genre literature shines through on every page. In many ways, this series is an ode to the weird, the batshit, and the wonderful imaginative possibilities of speculative fiction—which does occasionally make it feel as though it’s playing an insider’s game: it might be a little too sincere about its love, sometimes…It reflects, too, a world in which governments cannot be trusted in the least to respect due process and human rights, and its generally optimistic tone is darkened by the underlying dialogue on the nature of civil rights and equality before the law when whole classes of people can be designated as not human enough at a government’s convenience. This is a fantasy novel that deals with the trappings of the security state, and its positive ending is a fragile, fragile thing. Deeper thematic arguments and questions of political morality aside, Revisionary is an awful lot of fun. I personally really enjoyed the fact that Isaac spends most of the novel simply surrounded by competent women…If I have one complaint, it’s about the italicised sections of context-free dialogue that open each chapter. It takes a while for a reader to realise who’s talking in these segments, and that is a little distracting.

From the Mind of C.E. Tracy says: “This was the best book in the entire 4 book series. The best. At least it ended on a high note. The story was fun and full of adventure. I liked how there was very little lull in the story. Even in the parts where they wasn’t much action, there was still something being learned, understood, figured out, etc. I also liked how Issac had much more freedom than in the previous books. He always seemed held back. Now, with the death of Gutenberg, he is finally able to spread his wings and grow. All of the characters have grown tremendously throughout the series. As I mentioned in the paragraph above, Issac was held back because of Gutenberg, but now he has since become so much more powerful. I think it is cool that he can read magic. I also like how he can siphon others’ magical abilities and use them temporarily…Then there’s the relationship between them and Nidhi. It feels like one of those things where they finally realise that no one is going anywhere and have finally just accepted each others’ role in it. It wouldn’t be too far a stretch to also say that Issac and Nidhi have developed a fondness for each other. The writing is much more polished than it was in the other books. This one had a better flow and just felt better put together.

 

I disagree with both of these reviews: I think Revisionary is, while still a good story, the worst book of the series, and I’ll tell you why. In the plots of the previous novels, Isaac uses libriomancy to battle against magical threats, from automatons and killer bugs to ghosts and god-like creatures. Isaac’s libriomancy allowed him to pull really cool things from books, things that make many of us readers “geek out”. In Revisionary, however, I never really felt that “geeking out” experience. The things that Isaac used were appropriate, and his libriomancy has evolved in a spectacular way. But both of these things are driven by the plot and Isaac’s adversaries, and that’s where the true problem lies.

Spoiler Alert! The main plot of Revisionary revolves around a subset of the government trying to destroy magic, or as Liz eloquently put it, “whole classes of people can be designated as not human enough at a government’s convenience”. This plot is so worn out and cliche that I really struggled with it. There’s nothing new about the government (or a subset of it) trying to control or destroy people with supernatural powers…X-Men used it, The Avengers used it, the TV show Alphas used it, and there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other stories, movies and TV shows that have used it. In other words, it’s over-used, it’s tired, and it’s quite frankly annoying to see it pop up yet again. Sadly, with the direction the Hines took by the end of Unbound, there was no other way to go, and that’s what is most disappointing to me.

One could argue that the means by which this plot was implemented – using magical creatures and networked clones to destroy magic – was fairly unique, and regarding the actual creatures used, they’d be right. Ultimately, however that plot point – using supernatural creatures or people against other supernatural creatures or people –  is also not new. As I expressed in my review of Unbound, I was afraid that with this new direction Hines was taking, that he wouldn’t be able to consider all the ramifications that would result from the direction of his plot, and I was right…I thought of at least a dozen things that Hines never considered, because one person can’t always conceive every detail when using a scope this big (the integration of magic and magical creatures into societies all over the world).

Very little time is spent on the ramifications of Isaac’s decision to reveal magic to the world. He didn’t ask anybody else what they thought. He didn’t get a consensus. He didn’t really think through what the consequences of his actions would be. Some of this is explored through the chapter intros, where Isaac sits before congressional hearings, or discusses the issue with someone (I won’t reveal who), but the ethics and morality of the decision that he made, by himself, are largely absent from the main story, except in the research center and the way that Isaac attempts to aid his niece. This means that the story presents the ways in which Isaac benefits, but spends little time on what the cost has been to those he has “outed”, except for a report on an exterminated vampire nest that is strangely clinical and cold.

Another problem with the book is that Isaac has become far too powerful. His magic is so strong that he can solve any problem and threats don’t feel as substantial. And he doesn’t even really need the physical books anymore to overcome problems, which is sad because the original form of libriomancy – reaching into books and pulling things out – has been pushed aside to a large degree, and in my opinion it was one of things that made libriomancy so much fun. There are some other issues, such as Ponce de Leon, a once-prominent character, completely disappearing. He does not appear in the book, and his disappearance is never really explained other than he is grieving for the loss of Guttenberg. Also, in previous books, an enemy could get to Isaac by threatening Lena’s tree. Although the government is aware of Lean’s tree, Isaac’s enemies don’t use it against Isaac and Lena, which is a giant hole in the plot.

It’s not all doom and gloom. I agree with C.E. Tracy that it’s great to see the way Isaac and Nidhi (and Lena of course) have evolved their relationship. I also like that Bi Wei and Jeneta are integral to the story, although I would have liked them to play a bigger role. Deb DeGeorge the vampire is a great character – and in fact, Hines continues to write outstanding female characters, as Liz points out (and as I have pointed out in previous reviews) – and Smudge the fire spider is always a delight. As has been the case in previous books, Hines handles his action scenes (and there are a good amount here) with a deft hand, building the scene, and the tension, quite well. I just didn’t find them as compelling here as I did in those previous books.

In summary, I’m a bit sad that Revisionary is final book in the series, but mostly I’m relieved, as I didn’t like the direction it was taking. Obviously I’m in the minority, as my guest reviews (as well as reviews on Amazon and Goodreads) can attest to, so maybe it’s just me. As I mentioned above, on his site, Hines has a post entitled “Ending the Magic Ex Libris Series“. In this post, Hines states the following as one of the reasons for ending the series:

The series reached a natural stopping point, one that brings closure to a lot of the things I’ve been doing throughout the books. In truth, Unbound could have been a good end point as well, but I’m happy to have been able to take that next step with Revisionary.

And then further on there’s this tidbit:

My son gets very sad and upset when a show he likes comes to an end, and I understand where he’s coming from. He’s young enough he doesn’t understand the danger of a series stretching out too long and jumping the shark, or simply losing its magic.

I think this is what has happened to me: the series has stretched out too long and lost its magic, and to me, Unbound would have been a good end point. I can say that I sure am going to miss Lena, Smudge, and some of the other characters. I will also miss reading about the ability to pull things out of books; the initial awesomeness of Libriomancer still resonates with me, and has certainly sparked my imagination in a good way. For that, I will always be grateful to Mr. Hines…

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Book Review: Unbound by Jim C. Hines

unboundFormat:  hard cover, 1st edition, 2014

Pages:  338

Reading Time:  about 8.5 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 Meridiana 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…

Book Review: Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

libromancerFormat:  Hard Cover, First Edition, 2012

Pages:  305

Reading Time:  about 5 hours

I read a few reviews of Libriomancer when it was first released. Some people loved it. Others thought it was okay but flawed. I didn’t really know what to believe, but Little Red Reviewer’s take was probably the one that convinced me I should take a chance. Still, it took over 6 months for this book to find its way into my queue and then into my hands. Usually the sign of a good book for me is the inability to put it down. Every once in a while, though, I come across a book that strikes a chord in my inner psyche. There’s only a few authors who have had this effect on me (Roger Zelazny, Glen Cook, Robin Hobb, and Patrick Rothfuss come to mind).

For me, Libriomancer is one of those books.

Other reviewers don’t seem to have had the same experience. I’m not even sure I can completely explain my fascination with the story…but I’ll give it a shot. It starts with style and pacing. Hines lays out fast-paced, first person narrative that very much reminds me of Zelazny’s The Last Defender of Camelot or his Amber series. Add some sleuthing like The Dresden Files, a magic system that at times resembles Inkheart, and maybe a little craziness, sexism, and magic from Xanth, and you’ve got one heck of a story. It is in some ways a coming of age trope, as the main character, Isaac Vainio,  is a young man who has been restricted from practicing magic in the field. Although he understands the magic and its rules, what he must learn is how to bend those rules, without getting killed or going insane in the process. What I found most compelling about Isaac, however, was his innate understanding of how magic works; at the same time, he lacks the inhibition, or common sense, to know when to stop pushing himself, right up to the edge of death or madness. In other words, he’s a big-time risk-taker.

Isaac has been exiled to a small public library, where his job is to catalog book titles for the Porters’ database. The Porters are a secret organization of wizards who try to squash harmful magic from being unleashed on the unsuspecting populace, like the agents of Warehouse 13 or Harry Dresden, or even Supernatural. They keep vampires, werewolves and other creatures in line, cover up magical happenings, and nab people who show a talent for magic. Isaac’s talent is libriomancy; through the collective belief of a book’s readers, objects and people in the books become real, and a libriomancer can reach in and pull objects out of books, making them real in our world. There are a couple of problems with this, though. One is that you could pull out some incredibly power objects that allow you to dominate the world, such as The One Ring from Lord of the Rings or the Elder Wand from Harry Potter. To prevent this, all copies of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter,  and other problematic books have been magically “locked”, meaning a libriomancer can’t access their pages. A second problem is that reaching into a book carries risks…for instance, while reaching into a book about vampires, your arm could get bitten by a vampire, which would then turn you into one. Finally, by reaching into a book, you immerse yourself in the story, and the more you draw on the magic in the books, the less able you are to separate the books from reality (remember, the people and objects within the books have their own reality). In a nutshell, the rules that govern libriomancy are there for a reason, and because Isaac once broke those rules while in the field, he can’t be a field agent again.

The trouble starts when some vampires come looking for Isaac. They want some answers, and when Isaac is not forthcoming, they decide to use force. Fortunately for Isaac, he’s got a couple of friends: Smudge, the fire spider who senses danger, and Lena, a dryad who shows up in the nick of time to help. This sets Isaac on a quest for answers of his own, and he follows clues that eventually lead him to face down more vampires, robots, and a mysterious adversary who may or may not be the missing Johannes Guttenberg, the father of the printing press who is over 600 years old, and the head of the Porter organization.

The story is smart, funny, and full of plenty of action. I enjoyed the characters, and watching the plot as it unfolded.  What I didn’t expect to find were ethical questions posed by the story. I had an idea about Isaac’s dilemma regarding Lena (see Little Red’s review). However, the lengths at which the Porters (and Guttenberg) go to protect society and themselves seems at times a bit heavy-handed. Also, Guttenberg uses magic (like the Holy Grail) to keep himself young, but forbids others from using that magic, in what appears to be a totalitarian system. What the story suggests, however, is how would you handle it differently? It’s one thing to be critical; it’s quite another to be able to offer solutions, especially once you know the motivation and reason behind those decisions.

In conclusion, the story was over all too soon. It was the most enjoyable read I’ve had in some time, and I’m looking forward to the next book with high expectations. The ending wrapped up a little strangely, and at times the book conveys some nagging inconsistencies, but they didn’t hinder my enjoyment at all. Highly recommended to anyone who loves books, or what lies within them…