What happens when what you’ve always known yourself to be is locked away from you? What happens when a secret that’s been a secret for hundreds of years suddenly isn’t a secret anymore? (A word of warning, regarding secrets: Here there be spoilers for the first two books in the series. I’m sorry. I can’t discuss this one without discussing them, at least a little bit.)
Ex-libriomancer Isaac Vaino doesn’t have an answer for the second thing at the beginning of Jim Hines’ Unbound, because he’s too busy wrangling with the first. Or, as he himself puts it:
“…I no longer had any reason to care about keeping a low profile, and in the words of a coworker, my give-a-shit gauge was stuck on Empty these days. (Kindle edition, loc 132)”
The reason Isaac is struggling with, well, everything (his job, his lover, her lover, his pet fire-spider, the list goes on) at the beginning of the book is because Isaac’s depression (to use my term) is winning. For a number of reasons, having to do with the destruction of his home town, no one remembering the destruction of the place or how it happened (but, like Isaac, remembering the dead and that they died), his part in everything that happened. And, more personally, because at the end of the book he had his magic sealed away from him.
Annoyance and amusement fought it out and decided to call it a draw. That alone should have been enough to make me realize how far gone I was. When a bright, fun, beautiful woman resting against me was a source of frustration, I had a problem. — loc 422
For those who haven’t read Libriomancer or Codex Born (both of which, as this book, I highly recommend), libriomancy is a way of manipulating magic by creating objects from well-read or well-loved books (often — but not always — both). However, Johannes Gutenberg, the first libriomancer, was able to “lock” certain books so that, for example, there weren’t a horde of Holy Grails floating around in the public. Or Rings of Three Wishes. Or other potentially world-altering magical or science-fiction objects. Or even theoretically real-world ones, I suppose. However, as in all fantasy books, magic has its price: in this case, the destruction of a book used too often.
Or of a mind stretched too far.
Who decides? In the Magic Ex Libris series to this point, Gutenberg decides. And thus it was at the end of Codex Born, Gutenberg locked Isaac’s magic away from him. For “his own good,” of course.
It’s safe to say Gutenberg was wrong.
Tension drained from my body, guilt and exhaustion replacing anger. I let my head thump against the steering wheel. I should apologize. For scaring Smudge. For snapping at Lena. For a lot of things. — loc 179
But there are monsters to fight and a mystery to solve, and despite his meeting many of the diagnostic criteria for depression, Isaac isn’t the sort to sit back and let the rest of the Porters solve it for him. Which turns out to be a very good thing.
Hines’ characters are well-drawn and believable. Isaac’s struggle with depression and despair and hopelessness is delicately portrayed, the villain is the hero of their own story, Lena the dryad is even more her own character here than she was in Codex Born, and we get to see more of Nhidi Shah (a psychotherapist and Lena’s other lover), Johannes Gutenberg, and Juan Ponce de Leon as well. I felt a little bit of lack of the third leading woman in the series, Nicola Pallas, who is neuroatypical, but what there was of her was simply amazing. And Bei Wei, whose characterization is still somewhat problematic — but, on the other hand, given the situation in the novel I can understand their choice to turn themselves into a hive-mind. Even if, as Isaac notes, that never does end well.
Another thing that I enjoy about Hines’ writing is that he clearly enjoys what he does — though these books can be heartwrenching or downright painful in places, the underlying style is always a delight (or has been so far; I haven’t read Rise of the Spider Goddess yet…). That, and he’s of my tribe (or I am of his tribe, I’m not sure how that works) because lines like this:
Flying—heights in general, really—ranked right up with do-it-yourself root canals on my list of things I’d rather avoid. — loc 982
make me laugh because they’re things I can see me, or my friends, doing and saying and that can be a relief when things have been getting just awful and tense in the plot.
And these books, though they can (and I believe should) be enjoyed by everyone will resonate particularly strongly with other people who love to read: there are cross-references to other texts, and not just libriomantiacally.
stepping in eerie synchronicity that reminded me of the children of Camazotz from A Wrinkle in Time, bouncing balls and jumping rope in perfect unison. — loc 1447
Hines also uses the technique of ending each chapter with something from the books’ setting: a blog post, news, email, whatever’s appropriate, about the happenings now that libriomancy is no longer a secret.
“Gandalf would make an awesome football coach, especially on defense. NONE SHALL PASS!” — loc 1378
A final thing this series has done is given me another dimension to my reading: imagining what mysteries I might pull from other pages. I’m pretty sure old Johannes would have locked all the Magic Ex Libris books — if he didn’t ghostwrite them in the first place.