Jim Hines, Libriomancer, And Admitting That I Was Wrong

You’ll need a bit of background before diving into this post. About a year ago, I read Libriomancer by Jim Hines. It’s a fantasy novel about a librarian who has the ability to pull things out of books: lightsabers, laser guns, the One Ring (probably not a good idea), basically anything that can fit through a book’s dimensions. You’d think I would have loved such a book? Magical librarians? How can that not be awesome?

And, well, it was awesome, for the most part. For most of the book, I was engaged and reading with the sort of hungry pace I usually reserve for Jim Butcher’s work.

However, when I got to the end of the book, there was something that didn’t sit quite well with me and made me feel sufficiently weird that I ended up knocking my review down to four stars. Still a very, very good rating, but not that that sparkling five star I was feeling for most of the book.

Why did I do this? Well, there was this character in the book: Lena. She was a dryad who was created from a book. She was depicted as intensely sexual, beautiful in a non-traditional way (much more curvy than your typical rail-thin love interest) and in the end of the book, she and the main character ended up in a three way M/F/F relationship with Lena’s previous lover serving as the second F.

I admit, that all seemed weird to me. I admit that for all of my progressive thinking, for all that I support and believe that gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders, should be free to love whomever they desire . . . the idea of this three person relationship felt odd to me. More than that, it felt exploitative. Everything about Lena’s character felt like it was catering to the author’s own personal kinks and tastes. This was just another fantasy author writing out his own personal fantasies. More powerful, sexy women that exist to serve male tastes. Sigh. I decided I wouldn’t read more in the series.

I was wrong. I was wrong about all of that.

Regular readers know that I’m a huge fan of John Scalzi. He’s in my personal geek pantheon; if he’s attending a convention, that’s a reason for me to want to attend that convention. I have signed copies of several of his books. I read his blog. I might have a mancrush on him. Okay, yes, I do have a mancrush on him.

He has a regular feature called The Big Idea where other authors can talk about their new books. Some of them are interesting, some of them aren’t to my taste, some of them have made me go out and get the book as quickly as possible. It’s a cool way for Scalzi to use his blog’s popularity to help other authors find an audience.

So today, a new Big Idea post goes up and it’s about the sequel to Libriomancer. Hmm, I think. Jim Hines. Oh, right, the book with the dryad and the three-way at the end.

But then I started reading. And when I was done reading, I realized that all my earlier impressions had been completely wrong. What I had taken to be more of the same fantasy exploitation of women was the complete opposite, was in fact a critique of those same exploitative depictions. I’m was like the kids in my high school lit class who were outraged when we read Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal because they didn’t realize it was satire.

Hines isn’t one of those fantasy authors out there creating more fantasy women to cater to his own male gaze. He’s the opposite. He’s giving talks on sexism in fantasy and posing in sexy dresses to raise awareness for these gender issues. In short, he’s one of us. And I never even realized it.

Reading about what Hines is trying to do with his character, both in the new book and in the first one, made me go back and take a hard look at why I felt the way I did with Libriomancer. It made me wonder why the M/F/F relationship at the end bothered me. What I realized is that I’m not immune to feeling prejudice towards things I don’t understand and this was something I didn’t understand. I was reacting just as a homophobic individual would.

I’m sorry that I judged Hines and his book too quickly. I’m sorry that I didn’t think more critically about the book. But I’m glad, too, because this experience made me reconsider my own thoughts and examine a bit of prejudice I didn’t know I had.

And all of that is good, because it’s how I grow. It’s how I learn.

Jim Hines’ book made me learn and grow. It’s not his fault it took me almost a year to actually figure it all out.

I’ll definitely be picking up his new book when I get home. And I retroactively have added back Libriomancer’s long overdue fifth star.

6 thoughts on “Jim Hines, Libriomancer, And Admitting That I Was Wrong

    1. You should definitely read it. It would be great to have another book discussion with you; I recall we had a debate on your blog about Harry Potter a few months ago that was quite engaging.

  1. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the latest Tropes vs Women in Games, because Sarkeesian made (what I thought was) a troubling assertion that sexist satire of the type you described is still essentially sexism.

  2. I think that sexist satire can still be sexist, definitely. On that point, I agree with her assertion.

    I think the main thing to keep in mind with Anita Sarkeesian’s critique is her statement that “sexist satire and satire of sexism” are very different things. The tricky part is that satire assumes the audience does not hold the values that are being subject to the satire; sadly, that is often not the case. A typical player does not look at a game like Fat Princess and laugh at the mockery of sexism in video games (with both fat jokes and women as objects literally the point of the game). Instead, the player just laughs at the depiction of women themselves in the game.

    I generally find that Sarkeesian’s feminist arguments push for a level that isn’t realistically practical, which conflicts with my own philosophy of practicality in fighting for small, meaningful gains (which was my point with the A Mountain shrine controversy).

    I don’t think it’s a problem that she’s making such arguments. Someone should! It’s just that my own hopes for feminism are more modest: more female characters that are interesting, inspiring, cool, exciting, independent, or empowered, and not necessarily all once (although that’s cool if they are!) Sometimes, I think in her push for completionism, as it were, she runs the risk of distracting her audience from more incremental measures of progress.

    As regards to Libriomancer, the point I overlooked the first time was that the book the character Lena is created from is literally called “Nymphs of Neptune.” Lena herself comments and is self-aware of the (fictional) author’s intentions. I’m kicking myself now for not grokking that the first time. My only defense is that I was reading the book on a long flight from New York and the cabin pressure was probably low and induced hypoxia. Whether or not that excuses Libriomancer from Anita’s critique of ironic sexism isn’t for me to say; I don’t think it falls into the same vein as something like Fat Princess, but that’s just me.

    1. I’d be interested in having a long discussion about Sarkeesian, her method of critique, and her general philosophy. Maybe next time I’m in Tucson we can grab a few rounds and talk about it. My main problem with her, actually, is that she suffers from one of the most prevalent problems in second wave feminism: females absolutely must exhibit masculine traits to be acceptable. This has the troubling implication that femininity is necessarily worse than masculinity.

      “Sometimes, I think in her push for completionism, as it were, she runs the risk of distracting her audience from more incremental measures of progress.” I would actually argue that the problem of this “completionism” runs even deeper than distraction. It seems like a female character who exhibits any “traditionally feminine” characteristics can’t be a positive female character.

      I think her hardline against gender reversal having any meaning is very telling. If you ask me, satirically “damseling” a male character can certainly be a commentary on how ridiculous the concept is. Moreover, taking the “damseling” of male character seriously can have two positive effects; either you subvert the idea that a male character must be powerful and self-sufficient or you recontextualize damseling in a gender-neutral light which is more about helping your fellow humans in peril than “male saviors rescuing weak females”. To that second point, you can make a really strong case by considering military stories that revolve around rescuing POW’s.

      1. That’d be great. I’ll buy the first round. And maybe even the second.

        I’d forgotten to consider her hardline stance against “reverse-damseling” (that’s an awesome phrase) because it came so early in the video, but you’re right, she’s pushing for a very specific brand of hardline feminism in that instance and it’s not one that I’d agree with, for the reasons that you mentioned. Good catch.

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