John Ney Rieber’s The Books of Magic

rieber-books of magicJohn Ney Rieber, Gary Amaro, Peter Gross, The Books of Magic: Bindings (Vertigo, 1995)
John Ney Rieber, Peter Gross, Peter Snejbjerg, Gary Amaro, Dick Giordiano, The Books of Magic: Summonings (Vertigo, 1996)
John Ney Rieber, Peter Snejbjerg, Peter Gross, John Ridgway, The Books of Magic: Reckonings (Vertigo, 1995)
John Ney Rieber, Peter Gross, The Books of Magic: Transformations (Vertigo, 1998)
John Ney Rieber, Peter Gross, Peter Snejbjerg, The Books of Magic: Girl in the Box (Vertigo, 1999)
John Ney Rieber, Peter Snejbjerg, Peter Gross, The Burning Girl (Vertigo, 2000)
John Ney Rieber, Peter Gross, Jill Thompson, Temujin, Richard Case, The Books of Magic: Death After Death (Vertigo, 2001)
Dylan Horrocks, Richard Case, The Names of Magic (Vertigo, 2002)

John Ney Rieber’s continuation of Neil Gaiman’s The Books of Magic is a complex, multilayered story that focuses not so much on Gaiman’s mythic connections (although they are there in full measure) as on Tim Hunter: finding his magic, and his bearings in the world(s) he inhabits is intimately tied in with growing up, which Tim does a lot of in this series. (I am not going to talk about plot here: it’s intricate, complicated, multifaceted, and; to be quite blunt, this is not about the plot, it’s about the story. The two are not the same. For those concerned with the sequence of events, the Wikipedia entry has a finely detailed summary that is as confusing as it is helpful, and an accurate reflection of the various shorter story arcs.) Dylan Horrocks eventually took over the series for a short while and provided a satisfying, if interim, resolution.

Rieber has created a structure that is nothing if not Wagnerian: think leitmotiv, except that instead of musical phrases, the motivs are characters and themes that appear, retire for a while, and then come back again to take their places as major elements of the story, all within an architecture that is, for lack of a better word, huge. (Not “epic”: the telling is too intimate for that. The closest this story comes to that concept is Armageddon, and even that is only a sidebar.)

Despite its scale, it is in all regards a very human story: Tim is not necessarily always a likeable boy. He’s as confused and rebellious as anyone else his age — twelve when the story begins — and he’s got a mouth on him that would get him regularly beaten to a pulp, if anyone were listening. He’s bitter, the seed of a deep cynicism, and with good reason: almost everyone he meets has an agenda, and to most of them he’s no more than a tool or a weapon that they can use, and he knows it. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t trust people, usually without any reason for it, but in Tim’s universe, bestowing trust doesn’t mean that you won’t be betrayed — in fact, the opposite is much more likely. The one exception is Molly O’Reilly, his girlfriend, a young lady who has her own problems and her own less-than-cooperative mindset, and who engages in her own brand of heroics. Needless to say, their relationship is not the most placid you could find.

Jane Yolen, in her introduction to Bindings, notes one fact that is very important here: “The world’s glue is story.” That operates on so many levels in The Books of Magic that one loses count. Let’s start with one fairly obvious facet: Tim’s story is one of those staples of fantasy, the coming-of-age story. He’s growing up. He has to: there aren’t really any other options. It’s cast in terms of a choice: does he want to learn to use magic and fulfill his destiny as the world’s greatest mage, or does he want to be “normal”? There’s no real choice here, that much is patently obvious, even if it hadn’t been stated clearly at the end of the original mini-series: being normal implies a lack of motion, a lack of pushing boundaries, and as Tamlin the Falconer notes when surveying the ruin of Faerie, man’s magic is to see, to change. The contrast with Faerie is instructive: Faerie is a realm of glamour, of deception, and of stasis. It has closed itself off and lives in a dream — perhaps an outward manifestation of the state of Tim’s Dad, guilt-ridden over his wife’s death and glued to his TV and his beer. And because it is closed, Faerie is dying, something that Tamlin, a mortal, has warned of for centuries. Even Faerie needs change, needs that yeasty ferment that is the joy and despair and great gift of humanity.

Tim’s initial foray into Faerie — not of his own volition, but through Tamlin’s desperation (Tim is dying of manticore venom) — is also the first stage of one of the most important parts of his quest — yes, the story is also a quest — identity. He’s sure at this point that his Dad is not his real father, and doubts that his Mum was his real mother (Titania does her part of obfuscate the issue, which one can only expect from her), and that’s a central element of anyone’s identity. The search for identity is the core of the story, finally resolved in The Names of Magic, after Tim has given away his magic and finally meets Merlin. It’s only then that he begins to understand — and accept — who and what he is.

Roger Zelazny, in his introduction to Gaiman’s original mini-series, commented cogently on Joseph W. Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, a work which is perhaps even more relevant to the series as developed by Rieber. Although I’ve mentioned coming of age stories and quests, there is, when it comes down to it, only one story, which we tell over and over again in as many variations as there are storytellers. And Yolen has it right: it’s the glue of our world (at least, the world of our cultures and societies, without which it’s debatable whether we exist at all), something that Campbell makes clear and that we can see vividly in The Books of Magic as a whole.

This is a graphic work, on top of its other virtues, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on that. The story in its various incarnations is marked visually by clarity and coherence. There are variations in character design, only to be expected when characters are handed down from artist to artist, and of course, wide variations in mood. And there are some really choice bits. I found Gary Amaro’s drawings and layouts for the beginning of Bindings striking. We’re still in the realm of the illustrated story, but Amaro comes closest to breaking that mold, providing some layouts and spreads that could take on the narrative burden themselves — but there are a lot of words in this script and they have to go someplace. I have no idea where the idea of depicting Auberon with horns originated, but as rendered by all the artists involved, he takes on a mythic resonance that relies purely on the visual: he is the primeval Horned God, the Lord of the Beasts brought into a vivid reality. The idea of Hell as a shopping mall is an obvious play on the suburban reality — the shopping mall as Hell — but the visual reality of it in Reckonings is a hoot. Richard Case’s drawing in The Names of Magic is refreshing: stark, crisp, active in itself, it brings Tim to a quite believable sixteen years and adds some super-hero touches to the warriors of Faerie.

There is a vast store of treasure in this series that I’ve only barely been able to hint at. It’s in the details, in the smaller stories embedded in the Story: Tamlin’s sacrifice, which takes him away from Tim before Tim had a chance to know the man who was his father; the death of the fallen angel Araquel, an ignominious end for what might be the only other truly noble character in the series; the interweaving of strands from Christian and Anglo-Celtic folklore and mythology (and it’s interesting that the mythic references here are all European); the succubus Leah, whom Tim frees from servitude, but who winds up being the only thing she knows how to be; the irony of a fairy tale that regularly takes good strong swipes at fairy tales and the expectations they instill. It’s rich, potent, substantial, and provocative. It’s also a damned good story.

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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