Once I got into the hang of this book, I couldn’t put it down. I had to find out what was going down with this mysterious mystery surrounding the murder of various Porters and who was behind it all. It was a fortuitous chance that I picked this book up along with The Eyre Affair (not having heard of either of these titles before, and only happened to chance upon them while browsing through library shelves) because their premises run along the same lines (book magic, basically).
The tone of this book was decidedly darker than The Eyre Affair, though not so much that it dims the pleasure of reading (I usually prefer a light-hearted narrative tone unless it is incompatible with the plot). This book deals with libriomancy, a nicely crafted magic system whereby naturally talented users (libriomancers, of course) can reach into books and access the book’s world. Unlike The Eyre Affair, they do not actually immerse themselves into the book’s world and interact with characters in it, but depending on what page they flip to, they may be able to pull out various useful items from the books (a lightsabre, anyone?). While The Eyre Affair dealt mostly with classic literature, Libriomancer was more focused on the current pop culture books (vampires known as ‘sparklers’ make a cameo appearance…), which made it very relatable since it was only published 3 years ago.
P.S. I love Smudge. Move aside, Aragog, you weren’t even in the running to begin with. Smudge is my new favourite fictional spider.
(Avast ye, down there be spoilers!)
I think there was room for character development, although perhaps Jim C. Hines was planning to save that for a later book in the series. Isaac Vainio was a field agent for the Libriomancers, but suddenly because he accidentally tapped into some kind of power while on a job, he’s been forcefully resigned from the field and pushed into a cataloging desk job in the library. He meets Lena Greenwood (although they’ve apparently met before, though I’m not entirely sure where – Dr Shah’s office?) and they’re plunged into a top-speed adventure.
It’s clear that there’s more to Isaac than meets the eye, probably even more than he realises at the point of the novel’s closure. Gutenberg, having only made an appearance nearer the novel’s ending, seems primed to play a bigger role in future novels either. I’m also not sure whether Isaac’s decision to spare Gutenberg’s life at the end would play a part in future books. Gutenberg, meanwhile, turned out to be a more pleasant character than I expected. I thought he’d be a grubbing, secretive and suspicious old man but when he did wake up, he turned out to be a more neurotic version of Dumbledore.
Anyway, the character that I felt could open a lot of discussions was Lena Greenwood. She’s a dryad (tree being) that Isaac assumed was born out of nature in the real world, but she eventually turned out to be a sort of male fantasy creation pulled out from a steamy romance novel by an untrained amateur in libriomancy. That means that she’s “written” (or programmed) to sense desire, lust and to shape her personality and character traits into what would most attract her mate. On top of all this, however, she also harbours some pretty strong nature magic that saves both her and Isaac’s asses plenty of times in the book, though I wouldn’t call her exactly the motorcycle-riding, ass-kicking dryad that the blurb on the back cover describes. For one, she barely rides a motorcycle in this novel.
The first time she started making advances on Isaac and when we come to realise that Lena is part of a romance novel creation, a lot of feminist repulsion came into mind. Was this going to spiral into predictability and romance-novel stereotypes? But I continued reading. Lena is a pretty complex character for someone who could’ve turned out to be just another stereotype. She has long bonded with her lover, Dr Nidhi Shah (I applaud this book for daring to put in a lesbian, interracial relationship), but Dr Shah’s kidnapping threw all of this off-balance. Because Lena is written to shape herself according to her lover’s needs and wants, she is afraid that she might be used for darker purposes assuming Dr Shah has been lost and turned into a vampire, she decides that she needs to find a new mate – Isaac. Seriously, at this point, I started re-thinking what this novel was about.
After a whole bunch of flirting, some near-sex, the startling conclusion for this love triangle is that: Lena wants both! Not because she’s a nymphomaniac (hah, but she’s a nymph though), but because when she feels torn between two lovers, her personality can’t direct itself into one particular direction and so it comes closer into something that belongs to neither lover, and something she can call her own. OK, interesting and non-stereotypical resolution!
I think the idea that this female character is written to shape herself according to her mate’s desire (I’ll not say a man‘s desire, because her relationship with Nidhi Shah, an Indian woman, is 9 years long before the novel even starts) and to be closely associated with sex, desire and lust because had me reeling for a while. I’ll admit that feminist alarm bells were ringing for a bit. But then I quieted them and tried to read deeper into Lena. I realised that she could have easily turned into a sex-obsessed dryad who just wants to get into Isaac’s pants now that her previous mate is MIA, but then I also realised that there’s a lot more to her than that. I know internal struggles are also a romance-novel stereotype nowadays, battling with the conscience and all, but the ones that happened in this book were believable and not at all cringe-worthy.
I know loads of people have criticized Lena, calling her a “sex slave” and all that, but I think there’s more to her than that. In fact, if we apply it to the real life, there are women out there who are – we’ll not say written as in the book – naturally inclined to having lover after lover, and each time tweaking a bit of their personalities to best suit their partner. Are we to call them sex slaves too? There is nothing inherently wrong with such a behaviour. Lena, in a sense, wants to hold her own, and to develop her own personality (hence the resolution of having 2 lovers at once), essentially making the best of what she’s been given and what she can’t change.
Oh, I like also that Lena is described as veering more towards the ancient Grecian ideal of beauty, being on the more voluptuous and plump side. At one point, an emaciated vampire calls her a “fat chick”. Rather than singling out that one moment of what some would see as body-shaming, I’d like to highlight that throughout the entire novel, told from Isaac’s perspective, he finds Lena nothing less than extremely attractive and desirable, despite her figure being what some others would call “fat”.
I’d recommend this to anyone who is looking for an adventure story with some comic moments, a well-crafted magic system and most importantly, who loves reading. A critic’s blurb on the back cover said something about this book being written for those who love books, and I have to agree with that.