Libriomancer, and first-person smartass POV in urban fantasy

(Current excuse for not reading much fiction: thesis-writing. Jesus H Christ.)

I’m not much of one for impulse-buying books that I haven’t read before, particularly not new, because they’re expensive and I’m broke and choosy. But this weekend I went nuts and bought five of them, which hopefully I will read, and then hopefully I will write about:

Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines
River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
She Returns from War by Lee Collins
Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch
Grim Company by Luke Scull

As usual, these are not book reviews, just me chatting about what jumped out at me as notably good, bad, or unusual.

First up: Libriomancer

Picking it up, I knew nothing about the author’s previous work, only that he had done this, which suggested he might be slightly better on sex and gender issues than other writers of his demographic. Also, it had a pretty good hook:

Some people would say it’s a bad idea to bring a fire-spider into a public library. Those people would probably be right, but it was better than leaving him alone in the house for nine hours straight.

So I gave it a spin, and it was fun — not ground-breaking, but I read it in one sitting and enjoyed it. It’s urban fantasy of the first-person smartass variety, but its premise was one that hasn’t been done before (libriomancers, wizards with the ability to make fictional artifacts real by pulling them out of the pages of books) and its protagonist, Isaac, has a steadier moral compass than most.

[mild spoilers]
The most thought-provoking part of the book regards the love interest, Lena — a dryad, pulled from the pages of a swords-n-sorcery wish-fulfillment pulp novel, who is sexy, sexual, badass… and hard-coded to want only what her lover wants. After her previous lover has been kidnapped — either to be murdered or converted, they’re not sure — she knows she has to imprint on someone new, or else risk becoming a weapon for the enemy. Having seen Isaac’s moral compass in action before, she decides he’s a pretty safe bet and sets her sights on him.

Which creates — and rightfully so — an ethical dilemma for Isaac. Lena is not a doll, she’s an intelligent, rational, thinking and acting creature who is aware of what she is, and comfortable with what she is, and exercising her autonomy insofar as she is the one choosing Isaac… and yet. What does consent even mean, when once they’re bonded she’s not merely incapable of saying no, but incapable of even wanting to say no? How can anyone with a shred of decency accept that kind of offer? How can they not, knowing that if they don’t, she’s going to get picked up by someone worse?

It’s an excellent dilemma, but fraught with so much really icky precedent that I was hard-pressed to see how Hines could possibly resolve it satisfactorily. Surprisingly: he does.
[/spoilers]

So if I seem unenthusiastic, it’s because I’m burning out on the first-person smartass point of view. I’ve heard people say before that they flat-out won’t read anything written in first person, and at first I was floored. But Kirith Kirin, I wanted to shake them and shout! But Melusine! But Warchild!! My god, don’t you people realize what masterpieces you’re missing out on by refusing all first-person fiction? (But Donald Strachey! First-person liar, more like.)

I’m beginning to understand it now. Not to say that all first-person narration is bad and you should feel bad for reading it or writing it, but if you’ve read a lot of urban fantasy, which almost exclusively first-person smartass, after a while it starts to sound like the same person talking all the time. And that you might mistakenly come to believe is the result first-person narration itself, rather than the result of too many books trying to imitate each other.

At the same time, I also get why writers do it — it’s a popular choice because it provides a lot of shortcuts to likeability and (superficially, at least) the cues to what we think of as characterization. A sense of humor, a sense of irony, entertaining observations and opinions about their surroundings. It makes the narrator relateable, but ultimately, it’s becoming difficult to make the narrator unique. They’re all pleased by the same things. They’re all exasperated with the same things. They all get righteously angry over the same things. Quirks that are supposed to make them unique and memorable are surface-level at best. The prose quality of urban fantasy varies, but I’m hard-pressed to think of any protagonists that stand out from the herd, that are notably more virtuous, or more wicked, or angrier, or…

…Is that on purpose? Are urban fantasy protagonists intended to be unremarkable everymans than we’re supposed to project ourselves onto? Because that’s really not what I read for. I don’t see myself in the everyman, which could be why I keep throwing myself on urban fantasy (cool premise bro!) and keep coming away disappointed, because it tasted just like the last one.

I believe it was David Gaider, the Bioware lead writer, who was talking about the danger of writing characters by committee — how someone in the room will object to a particular character flaw (she’s too immature; he’s too swishy; he’s kind of racist) and ask if they could maybe tone it down a little? You’d think that would make it better, right? Here’s a person with a flaw, and you’re making them a ~better~ person, right? …Except no, that’s not how it works at all. Start filing away the warts, and pretty soon the character is going to be utterly indistinguishable from any other. They’re going to be a trope, an archetype, not a person. Which is why the Bioware writers put their foot down and say, Nope, they’re staying as they are. And it works.

All of which is to say that Libromancer is a fun romp, a better example of the genre, but not likely to transcend the genre. I will be reading the other books in the series, through probably from the library instead, and — given the nature of the genre, and how early books build momentum for later books — there’s a good chance it will get increasingly clever as it goes on.

(In no particular order, an incomplete bibliography of the urban fantasy titles/series I’ve read that are feeding into this review: Anita Blake series; Dresden Files; Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty series; Mercy Thompson series (Briggs); the first Sookie Stackhouse book; Jacqueline Carey’s disappointing foray into urban fantasy; the first Ilona Andrews book; and any number of forgettable one-offs.)

2 thoughts on “Libriomancer, and first-person smartass POV in urban fantasy

  1. It can be done well, of course, but very rarely. One of the things I thoroughly dislike about 1st person narratives, especially if the author had the bright idea of having multiple 1st person narratives for various characters in a single novel/series, is that they all sound the same. Particularly if the plot’s a bit predictable or the character-type is similar. Sometimes I have no idea who’s actually talking.

  2. Yeeeeeah, you have to be pretty good to pull off multiple first-person narrators, and a lot of authors aren’t as good as they think they are. Fortunately, not a lot of authors try it.

    I can only think of two offhand — one is the above-mentioned Melusine, which pulls it off *brilliantly.* You are never, ever, ever going to get the two viewpoint characters mixed up, because one of them has damn near the most distinctive “voice” that I have read in all my born days. It gets iffier in later books in that series, where everyone but him is less differentiated, but hot damn — she nails it in the first two. It’s helped by the fact that Felix and Mildmay not only have very different personalities, they also come from wildly different social classes, so their entire register is… well, different.

    The other was a YA book that I read when I was a YA, Armageddon Summer, a collaboration between Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville, if I recall correctly. It alternates chapters between the boy and girl protagonists, so I suspect that they divvied up the writing that way. I don’t remember getting the narrators mixed up while I was reading it, but I also don’t remember their voices being particularly distinct. Maybe the subtlety was lost on me; maybe there’s just not all that much dialect difference between suburban teenage males and suburban teenage females.

    And now I’m remembering another such YA collaboration, Sorcery and Cecilia, by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer (had to look that one up). Regency-ish epistolary novel of letters exchanged between two relatively upper-crust young ladies. And yeah, I think I was hard-pressed to tell the characters apart even while I was reading it.

    …and now, after all that discussion of how dangerous it is, I’m reminded that I’ve been entertaining the idea of writing a dual first-person POV novel myself. It should be a pretty easy split though, since one character’s narration is in present tense while the other in the more standard past tense. (Since one of the characters isn’t human, it works *really nicely* for making their sections more visceral and instinctive-feeling.)

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