Codex Born, by Jim Hines (Magic ex Libris #2)

published in 2013

where I got it: purchased new

Picking up shortly after the end of Libriomancer (review here), Isaac Vainio is back up at the Copper River library. As time allows,he’s been working with Jeneta, a poetry loving teenager who has learned to pull poetic metaphors out of e-readers, and together, they are trying to figure out why her kind of Libriomancy even works. Lena’s oak tree stands tall in Isaac’s backyard, and he’s working hard to get used to the fact that his girlfriend has another girlfriend (it’s complicated). When you are a libriomancer doing research for the Porters, there’s no such thing as a normal summer.

Did you get a kick out of Libriomancer? Codex Born is better.

The plot gets started very quickly, when dead wendigos are found, the local werewolf clan can’t agree on who has jurisdiction, and strange metal bugs are attacking Lena’s tree. The marks left on her tree match the marks left on the wendigo corpses, and there’s only one person who could have made these metal creatures: Victor Harrison. IT Guy for The Porters, tinkerer extraordinaire, also dead. With the help of a very creepy vampire, Isaac, Lena, and a few other Libriomancers put on the case learn that Victor’s father, August, has used his late son’s inventions to hack into the Porter’s databases and awoken an old and nearly forgotten type of Libriomancy. Not even Gutenberg’s soul-powered automatons have a chance in this fight.

sounds pretty awesome, right?

What if I told you the kick ass plot is the least kick-ass part of this book?

The action? the villain? It pales in the face of entirely new branches of Libriomancy, and learning that your heroes might not be so heroic. And then *that* stuff pales in the face of how Hines develops Lena, the most unique character I’ve ever come across. All that together makes for quite the compulsively readable story.

Once upon a time, there was a man who created a printing press. History is written by the winners, and he who controls the printing press controls the information in the books.

Isaac, being the curious person he is, is much more interested in understanding how Harrison’s libriomancer guards could possibly be using one of a kind, partially handwritten books for their magic. Doesn’t libriomancy depend on thousands of identical copies of the same book? I do so love Isaac’s curiosity. He’s the guy who bends the rules, who makes rash decisions, who trusts his gut feelings, and sometimes he makes a mistake. I think I just found a new professional role model.

It was very funny to me, that Isaac thinks he’s the main character of this book. Nearly everything is from his point of view, he’s the guy making the plans, so it’s only natural that he’d think it’s his book.

Nope. Remember what I said about paling in the face of?

Each chapter has a little prologue, and these are mostly from Lena’s point of view. How she woke up alone and afraid, with few memories of what came before. Of her early days as the very confused mistress of a farmer. Of Dr. Nidhi Shah’s first impressions of Lena, of how their relationship began. And of how Dr. Shah discovered what exactly Lena is, and that Lena’s definition of free will is very different from yours or min.. Similar to Smudge the firespider, Lena was pulled from a book and let loose in our world. Smudge was written to be the best sidekick ever, he can’t escape that role. Lena can’t escape her role either. She’s the epitome of what so many writers are currently fighting against ever seeing again in speculative fiction: the beautiful woman who exists solely to bring pleasure to others, the perfect sex partner, the woman with no agency. And who are we to judge Lena for getting her own personal satisfaction out of bringing pleasure to others? And don’t you dare tell her she hasn’t got agency, she’s got a bokken and she knows how to beat the the shit out of you with it.

It was very polite of her to allow Isaac to think he’s the star of this show.

Without Lena, this book would have just been a fun romp. Hines pours all the complexities of gender issues and moral judgements into her, she’s a safe haven for frank discussions of free will, sexuality, and complicated relationships. She is easily the most complex character I have ever encountered, and I absolutely adore her. Lena is what turns this book from “pretty cool”, to “holy shit it’s awesome”.

I also greatly enjoyed the new libriomantic magic systems that Hines introduces in Codex Born. Gutenberg’s way of libriomancy is just one way, and as we learn from the Eastern Libriomancers, many of the old ways were suppressed when Gutenberg was competing for power with his printing press. A small part of me feels bad for the conflicted Gutenberg, I mean, he did originally have good intentions, right? A larger part of me wants Isaac to dethrone him. With Jeneta’s newfound methods of using e-books, who knows what might possible? In the meantime, I’ll look forward to a Magic Ex Libris prequel, one that focuses on the lost decades of Gutenberg’s life. *hint hint, Mr. Hines!*

My only complaints about Codex Born were the same issues I had with Libriomancer – I found many of the action sequences to be jumbled and difficult to follow. The climax of the story is all action, which is usually great, but Hines’s style of writing action scenes just didn’t work for me. That said, Codex Born was still a hella good read. Come on, a story about how you can pull cool stuff from other stories? of course you are going to enjoy the hell out of it!

Filed under: Jim C. Hines Tagged: Libriomancy, magic, pop culture, science fiction, urban fantasy