At the core of Hugo-nominated author Jim C. Hines’ new fantasy series is this: Books are magic.
And not in that Saturday morning cartoon break Public Service Announcement “they-can-take-you-anywhere” kind of way, but in a “Johannes Gutenberg was really a wizard, and you can, in fact, bring things from books into the real world” kind of way.
Hines kicks off his new Magic Ex Libris series this week with the release of book one, Libriomancer, which introduces Gutenberg’s magic through its secret legacy of protective Porters, and through the story of one Porter in particular, Isaac Vainio.
As Hines tells it in the acknowledgments of Libriomancer, the idea was born years ago when an editor requested a short story that would bring the fire-spider Smudge off the pages of Hines’ Goblin Quest and into the “real world.” The result was “Mightier than the Sword,” about a man who can pull things from the pages of books and into reality. (The story was anthologized and later included in Hines’ ebook Goblin Tales. It’s not, the author notes, a canonical prequel to Libriomancer, but it’s a fun look at the origins of the larger project.)
Booth: It seems that in the context of a short story like “Mightier than the Sword,” you’d be able to get away with more of what authors refer to as “hand-waving” when it comes to the stickier details of libriomancy. As you took the concept to a book-length project, how did you adapt and rework the rules of libriomancy so it wouldn’t become too meta or unwieldy?
Jim C. Hines: Stay out of my head, man! Yeah, that’s exactly what happened. Suddenly I had to take a much closer look at the rules and limitations of libriomancy, and figure out exactly how my magical organization fit into the larger rules. I love the idea of creating anything from books, but that kind of magic needs limits, or else some fool will pull a pinpoint black hole out of David Brin’s Earth, drop it into the core of the planet, and soon we’re all crushed into nothingness. But I didn’t want the rules to be arbitrary, either. I ended up taking two routes with this. The Porters can lock certain books they consider too dangerous. (No Mira Grant zombie virus spilling into our world!) Also, if books are overused, they start to weaken. The book is essentially a portal for magical energy, and you really don’t want that portal to burst.
Booth: I love that you included a bibliography including both books you referenced and books you made up. As you wrote this, how often were there specific things you knew from the start you wanted to incorporate, and how often did inspiration strike during the course of telling the tale?
Hines: There were some things I absolutely knew I needed to include, things I would love to create myself if I had this kind of magic. There were also situations where Isaac got himself into trouble, and I needed to research exactly what books he could use to get himself back out. The problem is that while I’m decently well-read, Isaac has read just about everything, so I’m trying to write a character who is both smarter and better-read than I am. I spent a fair amount of time online or posting to Facebook and Twitter to ask things like, “Hey, anyone got any suggestions for a book that includes a wand or lens to see through illusions and deceptions?” I made up a handful of books, but for the most part, I wanted to stick with real-world books. Otherwise, it would be too easy to cheat.
Booth: When you are working on a book, do you suspend or alter your reading or TV/movie habits? I wonder if as you wrote Libriomancer, you read or watched anything and thought, “I’m using that in Isaac’s story.”
Hines: I read more books for research purposes, whether it’s a fictionalized biography of Johannes Gutenberg or a stack of urban fantasies. The best thing I came across – and I wasn’t able to use it! – was an actual historical record from one of Gutenberg’s court cases, in which he was accused of being “master of a secret art.” I consider this genuine historical proof that Gutenberg really was a wizard, and I’m still bummed I wasn’t able to work it into the book.
Booth: How are things coming along with books two and three in the Magic Ex Libris series – where are you in the writing process, and when are they planned for release?
Hines: Well, as of this week, I have a title! Book two will be called Codex Born. I’m working through the second draft, and while I have some ideas, there’s a lot of work left. My guess is that it will be out toward the end of 2013. This series is more ambitious than any of the books I’ve done before, which is both exciting and intimidating. I will say that book two should focus a bit more on Lena’s character and powers, as well as the history of Gutenberg and the Porters. Plus there’s probably going to be some Yooper werewolves.
Booth: Did you ever struggle with using an element or character because you knew it would make for a fun reference or in-joke, and not necessarily because it fit with your plans for the story? It seems like libriomancy would offer great temptation for packing in science fiction and fantasy references by the ton.
Hines: I struggled to keep from going overboard with that. I didn’t want to get so carried away with the in-jokes and references that I excluded readers. I wanted this book to be a way to share my love of the genre with everyone, as opposed to shutting out everyone who might not be a hard-core fan. I think – I hope – I managed to do that in a way that even people unfamiliar with the genre will be able to appreciate the story, but the hard-core fen should get a few extra treats along the way.
Booth: What was the most difficult aspect of writing within this universe, and how did you overcome it? (Conversely, where did you have the most fun writing Libriomancer?)
Hines: The hardest part is where I’m going. I have a general idea for a five-book arc that will tell an urban fantasy-style story I’ve never seen before. (I’m not saying nobody’s ever done it, just that I haven’t read it. I’m not as well-read as Isaac, remember?) I began laying the groundwork in book one, and to be honest, it scares the crap out of me. Which is probably a good sign that I need to write it.
The most fun? Probably getting into Isaac’s passion for magic. His sense of wonder and discovery and amazement, even with the things that are trying to kill him.
Booth: The must-ask question: You’re a libriomancer facing a closed door, knowing only that Something Really Dangerous is on the other side. What book is in your pocket and why?
Hines: Anything with a big old padlock to keep that thing from coming through the door! But assuming that’s not an option, maybe one of Fred Saberhagen’s Sword novels. If the dangerous thing is armed, I can pull out Shieldbreaker and be invulnerable. If not, maybe Sightblinder, which would make me look like whatever the thing loves or fears. And if all else fails, I could always grab Woundhealer so I could put myself back together after the thing smashes me into the ground.