BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: Isaac Vainio, on the outs from the Porters and now without power, struggles with demons both personal and internal, as well as a threat to the entire world.
PROS: Interesting shift in series theme; willingness to change the status quo of fantasy universe in interesting ways.
CONS: The intensely personal perspective of a protagonist suffering from depression may discomfort some readers; main narrative not as interesting as changes to the universe itself; cover art fails to adequately convey the book’s contents.
BOTTOM LINE: An intensely interesting, if not always comfortable, beat in Isaac Vainio’s story.
Libriomancy is a magic system born and tailor-made for bibliophiles. It’s a magic system that taps into the love of books and the things within them. Who wouldn’t want to be able to pull a phaser out of a Star Trek novel? Or a healing potion? Or wield Bilbo’s Sting?
The Magic ex Libris series by Jim C. Hines explores the story of Isaac Vainio, who goes from being a minor but ambitious Libriomancer dealing with magical threats in and around Michigan, to running up against the founder of the Porters: Johannes Gutenberg himself. Unbound, the third and final Magic ex Libris novel, explores the aftermath of that. Isaac finds himself with his power stripped and on the outs from the Porters. As Isaac struggles with his loss of power, his own personal demons, and the rising threat…the world is not going to remain unchanged from it all.
The first Magic Ex Libris novel, Libriomancer, follows some classic, traditional lines. Secret, Masquerade Fantasy, with magic happening underneath the noses of most of the world. It’s a cool other-world of libriomancers dealing with magical threats, many of them caused by people inadvertently pulling stuff out of books without any clear idea of what they were doing, and why. And, of course, locking down the existence of magic from humanity is a core tenet of the Porters. Even as Isaac deals with Vampires (of several types), mages, magical creatures and worse, the Magic ex Libris series, even with its cool magic system, is comfortable and relatively familiar.
By the time the series gets into the second novel, Codex Born, Hines has shown a willingness to change the status quo and evolve his world. In Codex Born, Isaac explores the consequences of a tangled relationship between himself, the Dryad Lena Greenwood, and her doctor Nidhi Shah. We get an unveiling of the history of the world, and that the Porters are hardly the only organization handling magic, and with very different goals than the Porters.
The third and newest novel, Unbound, is willing to blow up this universe even further. In many ways, the story of Unbound is a change to the world, a “Magic Returns” scenario that unfolds in the midst of the narrative. Magic Returns is not a new theme in fantasy, but usually is something that has happened in the past, and now we have a modern society with magic of various kinds. In Unbound, a formerly mundane world starts to come to grips with the existence of magic, and the story even explores the idea of a “reset button” (a la Star Trek) to try to undo it. It’s a widescreen change to the world in a series that has been willing to explore smaller changes up to this point in the series. In some ways, Magic Returns is the theme of the series, and only fully seen here, in the final novel.
On the other hand, Isaac’s story feels extremely personal and intimate, even throughout the world-changing events around him. The Magic Ex Libris novels have been his story, containing both the good and the bad. The first novel gives us a relatively baseline Isaac whose world is rocked by the addition of Lena. The second novel explores the consequences of that relationship. The third novel is very much the long dark time of the soul for Isaac. At the end of Codex Born, Johannes Gutenberg disempowers Isaac, taking away the magic that has defined him for the first two books. In the wake of that loss and other events in Codex Born, 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.
And there is a main narrative in Unbound in the midst of all of these changes and focus on Isaac’s story. 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.
The interesting thing about Unbound, and it’s not always positive, is that the change in series theme and exploring its implications is far more interesting than that main narrative itself. Perhaps this is a consequence of having a protagonist with the aforementioned issues, which doesn’t deprotagonize him but it does dilute his impact and ability noticeably. Or perhaps it’s the audacity of changing the fantasy world permanently, rather than going to status quo antebellum.
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.
Unbound is the absolutely wrong place to start to read the Magic Ex Libris series. It is, however, an extremely interesting entry in it, a real game changer. The joys of the first two volumes of the possibilities of Libriomancy are transformed and changed here into something very different, and in many ways, greater.