It’s been a while since I did an Is Our Writers Learning? post, which is partly because I think the format’s become a little stiff (check through some of my past posts for examples). So this time out, I’m going to take a question—does magic need to have a price attached?—and what I learned about it from reading Revisionary: Magic Ex Libris Book Four by Jim C. Hines.
This was the fourth and final book in the series (I’ve also read one, two and three). The premise is that Gutenberg developed printing because the psychic effect of hundreds or thousands of people reading an identical text gives it a kind of reality; libriomancers such as protagonist Isaac Vainio can reach into a book and pull out, say, Lucy’s healing elixir from Narnia, Excalibur or the love magnet from The Road to Oz (some books are locked so that nobody can access ultrapowerful items such as the One Ring or the Cosmic Cube).
Over the course of the previous three books, the existence of magic became public knowledge and the immortal Gutenberg bought the farm. In this one Isaac’s getting it from all sides: the government’s cracking down, there’s a conspiracy within the Porters (the libriomancer’s guild) to sell out, and he’s using so much magic he’s burning out.
Which brings me to the point of my post. My friend Gail Z. Martin has commented on several Illogicon panels that magic must have a price to make the story interesting. I don’t necessarily agree. Magic does need to have limits, but I don’t think it’ll suffer if the hero pays not penalty. And the price can be something as simple as “you’ll spend years of your life studying to master it” or “dealing with demons is risky.” Then again, I’m not a fan of the Charmed approach where magic is easy, basically just a super-power. Then again, I enjoyed Charmed just the same, and several other TV series/films that take the same approach.
Revisionary is an argument for Gail’s position, I think. For all that Isaac talks about the danger of what he’s doing, and the damage using so much magic does to him, he ultimately uses a shit-ton of it without a price. He’s waaaay more powerful than in the previous books. He wields magic from Jim Butcher and Alice in Wonderland, tech from Philip K. Dick and Roger Stern’s The Death and Life of Superman; he flies, ray-blasts, has force fields and telepathy. The opposition doesn’t stand a chance, although Hines does make the final battle challenging. It’s quite obvious Isaac could be even more powerful if he tried: draw out Captain America’s shield from one of the Marvel print novels or Superman’s invulnerable costume from, say, the Bronze Age novel Last Son of Krypton (the Stern novel came out when the costume wasn’t super).
Ultimately, it really is too easy for him. But it’s also entertaining, seeing Isaac become a superhero of sorts, pulling rabbits out of hat after hat, finding the perfect defense against every threat. It’s spectacle, and as a spectacle it works. I enjoyed it. It works better than the previous book in the series, which also had a high level of magic but Isaac was largely passive.
And Hines does a good job, mostly, with the politics. It comes off very bureaucratic and pragmatic — magical healing requires NHS testing for instance — rather than the mindless witch hunting cliches. That falls apart at the end (the bad guys might as well be Operation Zero Tolerance, Project Wide Awake or any other Marvel mutant-hunters). And I find it hard to believe testing is the only issue with magic healing: I’d expect the American Medical Association and Big Pharma to throw roadblocks in Isaac’s path out of self-interest.
Overall it was a fun book. And it does make me appreciate Gail’s viewpoint a little more.
#SFWApro. Cover image by Gene Mollica and Denise Leigh, all rights remain with current holder.