Review: Revisionary by Jim C. Hines

Review: Revisionary by Jim C. HinesRevisionary (Magic Ex Libris, #4) by Jim C. Hines
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Series: Magic Ex Libris #4
Pages: 352
Published by DAW on February 2nd 2016
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The fourth installment in the popular Magic Ex Libris series.
When Isaac Vainio helped to reveal magic to the world, he dreamed of a new millennium of magical prosperity. One year later, things aren’t going quite as he’d hoped. A newly-formed magical organization wants open war with the mundane world. Isaac’s own government is incarcerating “potential supernatural enemies” in prisons and internment camps.
Surrounded by betrayal and political intrigue, Isaac and a ragtag group of allies must evade pursuit both magical and mundane, expose a conspiracy by some of the most powerful people in the world, and find a path to a better future. But the key to victory may lie with Isaac himself, as he struggles to incorporate everything he’s learned into a new, more powerful form of libriomancy.

My Review:

unbound by jim c hinesI dove into Revisionary the second I finished Unbound. I’ve been wondering why I waited so long to read Unbound (reviewed here) and now I know. It was so I wouldn’t have to suffer through a seemingly interminable wait to find out how the story continued. Unbound was marvelous, but the ending fairly clearly indicates that the story as a whole isn’t over.

Now it might be. It’s not that the author couldn’t continue to tell more stories in this world, but that the arc begun in Libriomancer (reviewed here) feels like it comes to a logical conclusion in Revisionary. So if you are thinking of diving into the series (recommended enthusiastically if you love urban fantasy), Libriomancer is definitely the place to start.

The story in Revisionary deals with the impacts of Isaac Vainio’s act at the end of Unbound – he reveals the presence of magic to the world. The world, as one might expect, has reactions varying from thrilled to appalled, with most of the politicians and power-brokers weighing in on the “appalled”, or possibly “fake appalled” side of the equation.

If the fear-mongering and brinksmanship remind readers of present-day politics and the extreme Islamophobia being presented and encouraged by political leaders on one side of the spectrum, I suspect it is intentional.

The reaction of the mundanes to the knowledge that there are magic users among us also has its antecedents in modern fantasy. Sonya Clark’s recent (and awesome) Magic Born series (start with Trancehack, lousy cover but great book) deals squarely with both the result of discovering that some people have magic and the social and economic fallout when the U.S. goes full-oppression and religious fanaticism against a small but growing population.

Katherine Kurtz’ classic epic fantasy of the Deryni, who were also magic-users in a mundane society that found themselves on the receiving end of religious oppression, said it best in her book High Deryni, “Beware, Deryni! Here lies danger!…The humans kill what they do not understand.”

In Revisionary, the humans, the non-magic users, are indeed killing what they do not understand. Even worse, they are pitting groups of magic users and magic beings against each other in vicious experiments to learn the best ways to either suborn or murder each group. Even more insidious, they have orchestrated events to blame all the attacks on the magic users, thereby reaping the political benefits of increased anti-magic laws and regulations.

Magic users and magical beings are being successfully “othered”, in the exact same way that Japanese-Americans were “othered” in WW2 before sending them to detention camps for crimes that not merely they did not commit, but for crimes that were not committed. The magic users are “othered” in the exact same way that too many politicians are currently “othering” members of the Islamic faith, and refugees from war-torn countries, and immigrants. And anyone else they do not approve of, or who is not a member of their race and class.

The political parallels, while difficult to miss, do not detract from the story. In fact, they add depth to it. We’ve seen all of this happen before. It’s happening now. That makes it all too easy to believe that it would happen in this just-barely-different-from-now future.

Revisionary is also the story of an accidental hero, and that is a big part of its charm. Isaac Vainio was content to be a magical researcher and occasional field agent, in that seemingly long ago future where Johann Gutenberg was still ruling the Porters with an iron hand, and knowledge of magic among the mundanes was suppressed by any means necessary, which generally meant a LOT of memory wipes.

In Revisionary, the magical genie is out of the bottle, and Gutenberg is dead. Isaac finds himself at the center of the oncoming storm, as politicians use and abuse magic users for their own nefarious ends, and the remnants of the Society of Porters turn against each other.

Power corrupts, the attempt to grab absolute power corrupts absolutely, and one man who never intended to lead anyone at all finds himself racing to save his life, his friends, and the future.

Escape Rating A+: Revisionary feels like the end of the Magic Ex Libris series. It might not be, but the end of this story does not leave our heroes hanging over a cliff in quite the same way as the previous books. It is possible, based on the ending of Revisionary, to believe that Isaac, Lena, Nidhi and Smudge the fire-spider might be heading into an adventurous and eventful happy ever after. They’ve certainly earned it.

Isaac spends a lot of this book dodging one bullet after another, and tracing the ever darker threads of one nefarious scheme after another. The action is non-stop, the pace is relentless, and the parallels to our contemporary world heighten the tension of the story. While I would love to discover that there is magic in the world, I fear that the world-wide reaction would be much too much like what happens here. The humans all too frequently do kill what they don’t understand, and usually after lying about it first. As happens in Revisionary.

It’s also kind of a delayed coming-of-age story. Isaac has been an adult throughout the series, but in Revisionary he finally becomes the person he was meant to be. Where Gutenberg was the leader of the Porters in the world he effectively created, Isaac is the leader needed now, someone who makes friends and builds alliances instead of creating sycophants and enemies.

The subthread through this story is about the burden of leadership. Isaac is communing with either the ghost of or the book of Gutenberg, and together they ruminate on just how difficult it is to be the person that everyone is looking towards. All the decisions are hard ones, and it never ends. Unless you fail. And in Gutenberg’s case, apparently not even then. The counseling of the old man to the younger one is often wistful, and certainly makes the reader think.

That a story about the magic in books makes its readers think about the consequences of the characters’ actions, and their own, is a fitting end to this terrific series.

Review: Unbound by Jim C. Hines

Review: Unbound by Jim C. HinesUnbound (Magic Ex Libris #3) by Jim C. Hines
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Series: Magic Ex Libris #3
Pages: 340
Published by DAW Hardcover on January 6th 2015
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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…

My Review:

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.

Codex Born by Jim C. HinesUnbound, 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.

Libriomancer by Jim C. HinesThis 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.