Hugo winner Jim C. Hines's hilarious and clever Magic ex Libris series, where books come alive and libriomancer Isaac Vainio combats magical threats that spring from the page
Five hundred years ago, Johannes Gutenberg discovered the art of libriomancy, allowing him to reach into books to create things from their pages. Gutenberg’s power brought him many enemies, and some of those enemies have waited centuries for revenge. Revenge which begins with the brutal slaughter of a wendigo in the northern Michigan town of Tamarack, a long-established werewolf territory.
Libriomancer Isaac Vainio is part of Die Zwelf Portenære, better known as the Porters, the organization founded by Gutenberg to protect the world from magical threats. Isaac is called in to investigate the killing, along with Porter psychiatrist Nidhi Shah and their dryad bodyguard and lover, Lena Greenwood. Born decades ago from the pages of a pulp fantasy novel, Lena was created to be the ultimate fantasy woman, strong and deadly, but shaped by the needs and desires of her companions. Her powers are unique, and Gutenberg’s enemies hope to use those powers for themselves. But their plan could unleash a far darker evil...
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Jim C. Hines has been a paid juggler, earned a black belt in two different martial arts, performed yo-yo tricks at the top of the Eiffel Tower, and lived with a brain-damaged squirrel. (Only three of those are true.) One of his earliest stories earned first place in the Writers of the Future contest. He’s published more than forty short stories as well as numerous fantasy novels, including the humorous Jig the Dragonslayer trilogy, the Princess series, which re-imagines traditional fairy-tale princesses as butt-kicking action heroines, and the Magic Ex Libris series, about a centuries-old secret society dedicated to the use and control of book magic. In 2012, he won the Hugo for Best Fan Writer. Jim lives in Michigan with his wife, two children, and an unstable number of pets. He can be found online at www.jimchines.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
People say love changes a person. They have no idea.
Frank Dearing was the first man I ever met. He made me whole. He provided me with purpose and identity. And he gave me a name. “Greenwood” might not be the most original moniker for a dryad, but it was mine.
Nidhi Shah gave me strength and a larger purpose. Through her, my life grew from a single farmhouse to a larger world of people, plants, and magic.
Then there was Isaac Vainio. I thought his greatest gift to me would be a sense of freedom, however limited. But through him, through his curiosity and his often deranged need to poke the universe and ask “What does this button do?” I found something more.
I spent fifty years confined by my nature. Isaac helped me to discover hope.
As a Libriomancer and a researcher, this was one of the moments I lived for. I loved that this brilliant, untrained fourteen-year-old girl had just shattered an entire body of magical theory.
I hated the fact that I couldn’t figure out how she had done it.
Jeneta Aboderin slouched in a white plastic lawn chair on the old deck behind my house. Plastic sunglasses with pink-slashed zebra stripe frames hid her eyes as she read from an electronic tablet. “You’re not concentrating, Isaac,” she said without looking up.
Her words blended the faint Nigerian and British accents she had acquired from her mother and father, with a generous helping of teenaged annoyance at me, the thickheaded librarian who couldn’t pull magic from a simple poem.
“Am, too.” Not my most brilliant comeback, but I was off my game today. I was concentrating so hard my forehead would be permanently creased. I just wasn’t feeling the words. I glanced down at my own brand-new e-reader, a thin rectangle the size of a trade paperback, with a gleaming glass screen and a case of rounded black plastic. The buttons were recessed into the edges, and the whole thing looked like it had come straight off the set of Star Trek.
I was afraid I was going to drop the damn thing.
“Try again,” Jeneta said.
I scrolled up through Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, back to the beginning of a poem I had read fourteen times so far this afternoon. I had memorized it the second time, but reading the words helped me to touch the book’s magic. At least in theory. “Maybe if I started with something simpler, like creating moonlight?”
She snorted. “ ‘Look down, Fair moon’ isn’t about moonlight.”
“Are you sure? It’s right here in the title.” I tilted the screen toward her and pointed. “maybe I’ve got a defective reader.”
I imagined her eyes rolling behind her glasses. She yanked the reader out of my hands, and her fingers tapped a staccato beat on the screen. “Check out this one. ‘Dream Deferred,’ by Langston Hughes.” Slender brown fingers sank into the poem, emerging moments later with a raisin held between them. “You think Hughes was going on about raisins? It’s a metaphor.”
She left the “duh” at the end unstated. Shaking her head, she popped the metaphor into her mouth and said, “He packs every syllable with hope and fear and desperation, until the words are ready to explode. How can you not feel that?”
Her exasperation at my obvious thickheadedness didn’t bother me. I was more interested in how easily she had produced that raisin from an electronic device. Johannes Gutenberg himself, the man who invented libriomancy, had said it couldn’t be done.
Gutenberg had built his printing press more than five hundred years ago based on his theories about magical resonance. He had believed that physically identical books would hold the collective belief and imagination of the readers, and that a man with sufficient magical gifts could tap into that belief, using it as a focus for his own power.
Growing up, Gutenberg had been a third-rate practitioner at best. He had mastered only the most basic of spells, and even then needed help to cast them properly. libriomancy had transformed him overnight into one of the most powerful men in history.
Electronic books lacked the physical resonance of print. The words were nothing but a collection of zeroes and ones translated into a transient image on whatever screen you used to read them. We had always assumed that e-readers would be useless for libriomancy, that the variety of reading devices and the impermanence of the files would prevent anyone from tapping into that collective belief. Porter researchers wrote dire predictions about the dilution of our magic as more readers moved from print to electronic, whittling away at our pool of belief.
And then Jeneta Aboderin had accidentally loosed a three-foot, long-nosed vine snake from her smartphone in the middle of algebra class. That event had left a hundred Porter researchers fighting for time with Jeneta and the chance to try to figure out exactly how the hell she had done it.
After all, part of the mission of die Zwelf Portenære, the secret organization Gutenberg had overseen for all these centuries, was to learn as much as we could about magic’s potential. more importantly, if I could master this trick, I wouldn’t have to lug thirty pounds of books with me every time I went into the field.
The Porters, as they were known to those not comfortable with middle High German, also worked to hide the existence of magic from the world, and to combat an ever-changing list of potential magical threats.
The other Porter researchers were probably cursing my name and trying to understand how Jeneta had ended up working with me in copper river, Michigan. I was the newest member of our research branch, having been promoted a mere two months earlier, and none of my work had anything to do with electronics or e-books.
Jeneta plucked another raisin from the e-reader and handed it to the large spider soaking up the sunlight on the deck railing. Smudge and Jeneta had taken to each other at once. Smudge lazily extended his forelegs to take the raisin from her fingers. A droplet of red fire appeared between his legs, and he stuffed the burning snack into his mouth.
“I had another dream last night,” Jeneta said quietly, not looking away from the fire-spider.
I reached over and took my reader back. “No more raisins. You know the rules. You’re on a twenty-four hour magic ban after the nightmares.” I did my best to keep my tone comforting, but to my ears, I came off more like a cross between a school counselor and a babysitter trying too hard to be cool. This was why the Porters had trained therapists on staff. “What were you doing yesterday?”
“I dunno. I just ...after campfire, I needed a break. There’s been a lot going on, you know? Three weeks ago I was in summer school, trying to make sense of geometric proofs. Now I’m doing magic.”
Her mouth softened into the first unguarded smile I had seen from her all afternoon. “I went down to the docks to think. I got to watching the minnows swimming around. After a while, I tried reading to them.”
“You read to the minnows?”
“Shut up. It was amazing. At first I was just sitting there, going through a collection by Sonia Sanchez. I was reading ‘Personal letter number 3,’ and I noticed the minnows were moving to the beat of the words, even though I’d been reading to myself. When I started reciting the poems out loud, they went nuts. Like they were dancing.”
I checked to make sure my digital recorder was getting this. Pulling raisins from poetry was one thing. I’d been swiping toys from science fiction and fantasy novels for years. Using the emotion of a poem to influence others, even minnows, was a whole other school of magic. “Could you do it again? Not today, but in a controlled environment where I could observe? I could set you up with some of Smudge’s feeder crickets.”
“Probably. I didn’t do it on purpose, though. It just happened. They felt what I felt. Sanchez makes me want to move.”
“How long did it last?”
“An hour. maybe two. I lost track of time.” she tossed her thin braids back over her shoulders. “When are you going to give me a straight answer about these dreams?”
“I told you they’re not just dreams.”
Jeneta groaned melodramatically. “Please don’t give me the boundaries lecture again.” Her voice turned deeper, a passable imitation of me, though she mangled my accent. “The more magic you use, the weaker your boundaries become, and the easier it is for the magic of your books to infiltrate your thoughts. Let me tell you about this time at Mackinac Island—”
“I wasn’t going to talk about Mackinac Island,” I lied. “I was about to say I know what you’re going through.”
She stopped playing with Smudge. “You’ve had them, too?”
“A few months back. I was down in Detroit, and I tried to—” I caught myself. Jeneta was as inquisitive as any other libriomancer. if I told her I had been able to reach through a book to spy on another libriomancer, she’d be trying it herself before the week was out, no matter how dangerous the consequences. “It doesn’t matter what I did. I charred the crap out of the book, and someone . . . something came after me. Like magic was an ocean, and I had stirred an old one from the depths. It tried to drag me down, to tear me apart.”
“To devour everything that made you you.”
I pretended not to notice the tremor in her hands. “Exactly. Mindless rage and hunger.”
“How did you stop the dreams?”
“By going into a coma.” I stared at the garden beyond the deck, walled by rosebushes so colorful they seemed unreal. “I told you, they’re not dreams. I was awake when it came after me. Lena brought me to Nicola Pallas’ place. She managed to pull me back.”
Even the regional master of the Porters had been hard-pressed to save my sanity that time.
“They warned me about possession,” she said. “How characters and poems could start talking to me, trying to lure me in.”
Overuse of a book’s magic thinned the metaphorical walls between that book and the real world. Every case of possession varied depending on the books involved, but they all ended with an incurably insane libriomancer. “What we saw isn’t possession, either.”
“So what is it?” she demanded.
“We don’t know.” since before the founding of the Porters, something had lived within magic itself. Something that fought to break through to our world and consume it. none of us knew exactly what it was or where it had come from. Or how to stop it.
This was the other, secret purpose of die Zwelf Portenære, The Twelve doorkeepers. A select few among the Porters devoted themselves to understanding our enemy and learning how to keep it from entering the world.
My encounter earlier this year had earned me a place among that group. Gutenberg had assigned me to identify our enemies, to answer questions that had baffled the Porters since their founding. That was why strings had been pulled to get Jeneta a fully-paid trip to summer camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, along with an “Advanced Youth opportunity” internship working with me at the copper river Public library.
“You don’t know,” she repeated flatly. “I mean, I’m glad I’m not hallucinating or going crazy, but you’re telling me there are magical monsters trying to eat my mind, and nobody knows what they are?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“Damn.” She thought for a moment. “How would these devourers even evolve?”
Typical libriomancer response. Something weird wants to kill us? Cool! Where did it come from, and how does it work? And, depending on the inclinations of the libriomancer, how can I catch one and take it apart?
“I don’t think they did.” I had multiple theories, based in part on research done by previous Porters over the years and reports on the aftermath of the handful of recorded encounters. There were many conflicting explanations, all but impossible to test. “I think we created them.”
“You mean the Porters?”
“Not necessarily, but people, humans.” I sprawled back in my chair. “It’s a hunch. They could be three-headed psychic aliens from another dimension or the astral projections of dinosaurs from millions of years ago. But there was . . . not a connection, but a sense of recognition. Like passing a stranger on the street and, just for a second, before your brain catches up, feeling like you knew them when you were younger.”
She lowered her sunglasses and raised her eyebrow in a motion so smooth she had to have practiced it in the mirror. “You believe in aliens?”
“I’m dating a dryad, and you pulled a snake out of your phone. You’re going to draw the line at aliens?”
“If you try to tell me aliens built the pyramids, I am so out of here.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” I waited a beat, then added, “The pyramids were built by mummified elves.”
I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but her eyebrow climbed even higher. “Mummified elves?”
I was a lousy liar, but for once I managed to keep a straight face. “A friend of mine fought one of the things once. Damn thing was like a nightmare straight out of a Keebler commercial.”
“I think you’re right.”
“Of course I am. Elven magic is nasty stuff.”
From the look she shot me, the only thing in the world worse than devourers was an adult trying to be funny. “About the devourers. They hated me too much. It was personal.”
“What happened when you woke up?”
“I snuck out to the showers. The water’s always too cold, but I didn’t care.”
“Like you’d scrape your own skin off to feel clean again,” I said, remembering my own dreams after Detroit.
“Yeah.” she plucked a weed growing through the boards at the edge of the deck and poked it at Smudge. Smudge crouched, then jumped forward to set the end on fire. “Try reading the Whitman poem again. ‘Pour softly down night’s nimbus floods.’ Visualize it.”
I picked up my e-reader, letting her change the subject. Though she tried to hide it, I could see she was fighting tears. I pulled up the poem, read it yet again, and imagined clouds lit from within as they drifted slowly over the full moon. It was a cool, damp night. The poem stressed the contrast between the sky’s beauty and the horror of the Civil War dead strewn over the battlefield.
“‘Bathe this scene,’” Jeneta sounded different when she read. More confident. Powerful. “‘Pour down your unstinted nimbus, sacred moon.’ Twice he uses images of water, of cleansing and baptism. The washing away of sin. Why?”
She sounded like a teacher. I wondered if she was channeling her mother. I touched my fingers to the screen. “He was pleading.”
“Exactly.” This was familiar ground for her, much safer than whatever had invaded her mind. “Wash this ugliness from our souls and memories. Wash this horror from our world. Forgive us. redeem us. ‘On the dead, on their backs, with their arms toss’d wide.’ Why are they on their backs, Isaac?”
“They’re looking to the sky, to God.”
“That’s the heart of the poem. Grief. Shame. Hope. That’s your connection. Touch those feelings, and you can use this poem to bring an entire crowd to tears.”
I tried again, imagining the emotions and reaching for their echo within the e-reade...
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