Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Series: Magic Ex Libris #3
Published by DAW Hardcover on January 6th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org
For five hundred years, the Porters have concealed the existence of magic from the world. Now, old enemies have revealed the Porters’ secrets, and an even greater threat lurks in the shadows. The would-be queen Meridiana, banished for a thousand years, has returned in the body of a girl named Jeneta Aboderin. She seeks an artifact created by Pope Sylvester II, a bronze prison that would grant her the power to command an army of the dead.
Michigan librarian Isaac Vainio is powerless to stop her, having been stripped of his power and his place among the Porters by Johannes Gutenberg himself. But Isaac is determined to regain his magic and to rescue his former student Jeneta. With no magic of his own, Isaac’s must delve into the darker side of black-market magic, where he will confront beings better left undisturbed, including the sorcerer Juan Ponce de Leon.
With his loyal fire-spider Smudge, dryad warrior Lena Greenwood, and psychiatrist Nidhi Shah, Isaac races to unravel a mystery more than a thousand years old as competing magical powers battle to shape the future of the world. He will be hunted by enemies and former allies alike, and it will take all his knowledge and resourcefulness to survive as magical war threatens to spread across the globe.
Isaac’s choices will determine the fate of his friends, the Porters, the students of Bi Sheng, and the world. Only one thing is certain: even if he finds a way to restore his magic, he can’t save them all…
I love this series. But then, I would. It is an urban fantasy where the hero is a librarian who loves SF and fantasy. Isaac Vainio is someone who I would want to know. Hell, someone I would want to be, as long you throw in a gender swap.
This series is all about the magic in books, and the way to literally draw that magic out and make it act in the real world. Unfortunately, not all magic users, just like not all people in general, are hero material. Some are anti-hero material, and some are unequivocally villain material.
Unbound, which follows directly from Codex Born (reviewed here) is an even darker book than its predecessor. And now that the fourth book in the series, Revisionary, has come out, I’m starting to think that we have two middle books, Codex Born and Unbound. While the immediate evil is vanquished in Unbound, things still feel kind of bleak.
(Confession, I started Revisionary the minute I finished Unbound, and the situation just keeps getting darker. This may be reflecting on my sense that Unbound is darker than Codex Born.)
In Unbound, Isaac is trying to clean up the mess he feels he created at the end of Codex Born. He is also battling extreme depression through the first half of the story. At the end of Codex Born, a young girl that he was mentoring was captured by an evil sorceress and would-be empress of the world. That sorceress, Meridiana, has take control of Jeneta Aboderin’s body and magic, in addition to the Ghost Army she already controlled.
She is using Jeneta for her unique skill – Jeneta is the only libriomancer, so far, who can draw magic out of ebooks. One of the limits on the power of most libriomancers is that they are limited to the books that are available to tham at any given time. Even a long coat with LOTS of pockets has some practical limits on how many paperbacks it can hold. Jeneta can carry the entire Library of Congress in her ereader.
And after the debacle where Isaac lost Jeneta, Gutenberg chose to punish him by throwing him out of the magic-wielding Porters and taking away his magic, but not his memory of it. So Isaac remembers everything that he has lost, and it’s killing him. He goes on a mad, obsessive quest to undo the wrong he has done by finding and saving Jeneta. He doesn’t seem to care whether he survives.
Instead, in battle after battle, whether magical, physical, or merely bibliographic, Isaac gets closer to the secret of Meridiana and her possession of Jeneta than the entire collective efforts of the Porters manage to do.
The price of expiating Isaac’s guilt is going to be very, very high – and it will change the world. Whether for better or for worse is a story that will be told in Revisionary.
Escape Rating A: 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.
This is not a place to start this series. That would be the first book, Libriomancer (enthusiastically reviewed here). The action in Unbound, and the way that the backstories of all the characters influence that action, are necessary in order to be fully invested in the events of this story. Also Libriomancer is just plain fun, even though the shadows on Isaac’s horizon are definitely forming by the end of that story.
In Unbound, we get a much deeper view of the way that the Porters both do and especially don’t work. In suppressing the knowledge of magic for five centuries, Johannes Gutenberg has also successfully suppressed humanity’s ability to deal with the existence of magic. And his autocracy within the organization he created has also suppressed the Porters ability to deal with the real world around them, and with each other.
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.
Isaac has kind of an everyman, or at least every-magic-user quality to him. He’s not particularly handsome, and he doesn’t see himself as particularly brave. He doesn’t even see himself as especially intelligent, at least compared to the rest of the Porters. But he is always extremely determined, and that’s what usually wins the hour, which is enough to move to his next half-a-plan.
So we have an urban fantasy series with an everyman hero and a particularly cool kind of magic saving the world from the chaos that he creates as well as the evil that he is reacting to. And it will keep you on the edge of your seat every minute.