From The Bookshelf
by Nicolas Juzda
The Books Of Magic: Bindings
The Books Of Magic began as a mini-series in which Tim Hunter, a young boy destined to be the most powerful magician of his age, was introduced to the various magical elements of the DC Universe. Though the story allegedly revolved around him, he was of secondary interest, and the real entertainment was provided by the established characters whom he met. The subsequent ongoing series changed that, focussing on Tim's struggles as he slowly grew into his role.
Bindings, an unfortunately slim volume, contains the first four issues of the ongoing series The Books Of Magic. It also has slightly reduced and mildly obscured reproductions of the original covers, and an introduction telling you how great what you're about to read is. The average price is about four bucks per issue reproduced, a bit less in the U.S., which is hardly a bargain.
In this trade paperback, Tim is told some things about his lineage, stops the Manticore from destroying the magical land of Faerie, and chats with Death of the Endless.
The difficulty with critiquing The Books Of Magic: Bindings is that the ongoing series from which its contents were taken always took such great delight in subverting narrative expectations. Often, it did so openly, but on occasion the attacks on the form were subtler, and this is quite disarming for a reviewer such as myself.
Take, for example, the emotional core of this story, Tim's desire to learn his true parentage. The man who raised him is not some Dahl-esque (would that be Rowlings-esque these days?) tormentor, just a guy who could be more attentive to his son and less to the television. This adds reality, undoubtedly, but makes Tim's dissatisfaction seem at best mundane and at worst self-indulgent. Rather than empathizing, I found it almost unfair that he actually does appear to come from other stock by volume's end.
But therein lies the problem. Is this in fact the author's intent? Are we viewing satire, the fantasy of one's true noble heritage (a la Amethyst: Princess Of Gemworld) exposed for the pathetic self-aggrandizement that it is? If so, the goal was deftly achieved.
As presented in Bindings, Tim is not particularly likeable; the slightly smartass punk of the original mini-series has given way to a self-pitying whiner. He will grow on some readers through subsequent volumes, and he did on me. In part, that occurs through the addition of a supporting cast, particularly his sometimes-girlfriend Molly. The other part is that he actually does mature, and for that to occur he must of necessity be immature at the start of the series. More problematically, Tim isn't all that engaging at this point and therefore his quest has no particular drive; I found myself little caring whether he found the answers he sought. However, could the idea that a hero be someone I wouldn't much like or care about have been part of the point?
Lest you think my training in the art of literary criticism (and I do have some, I assure you) has robbed me of all power to criticize, I shall deliver the opinion that the degree to which Tim's unflattering portrayal was taken herein was a mistake, lessened my enjoyment of the book, and would likely discourage readers from wishing to purchase subsequent volumes.
Tim's victory over his foe in the third chapter follows similar lines, insofar as it doesn't appear to be his victory at all. At most, he was inadvertently responsible for summoning aid who then won his battle for him, and even that action must be read into what is present on the page.
So, is this subversion, a demonstration that little boys cannot defeat monsters no matter how clever they are? Or is it a starting point for his growth as a magician, for there is no humbler beginning than such near-uselessness? Or, again, just a deus ex machina, bad writing?
The reader must find his or her own answers.
The Manticore is the highlight of the book, a wonderful villain. He captures and dissects magical animals, scientifically "proving" that they do not exist. It is a most amusing and innovative concept for an evil-doer, and his mock-academic dialogue is quite delightful satire. The scene where he appears to be lecturing to a classroom full of bizarre students until the view shifts and we see that they are all taxidermized specimens is probably the best thing in here.
There is some thematic confusion that arises when on the one hand the story champions blind faith in the stuff of legends but on the other attacks the fairy tale tradition as deceptive and simplistic (a theme that will come to further prominence in later volumes but makes its debut here as Tim finds the skeleton of a previous victim while reflecting on the improbable triumphs of children in such stories). These two themes can be worked together, but not without considerable independent effort on the reader's part.
The concluding chapter features a guest appearance by the ever-popular Death of the Endless. Her characterization is certainly not incorrect, but there's a certain rote quality to it. This feels like a pastiche of how Death behaved in Sandman and it comes off as lifeless (no pun intended).
In Sandman, Death was a longstanding confidante of Dream, tolerant of his foibles but not afraid to point them out. It was a relationship that worked because they were equals. Here, Tim's reception of Death's advice comes off like the errant child learning that Archetype Knows Best. This is puzzling, since elders are seldom sources of wisdom in The Books Of Magic, but here such is indubitably the case. Molly subsequently assumes a role that much better carries on the tradition Death established in her inaugural appearances.
Though the book is not without merits, I find myself having to discourage potential buyers from starting their collections of the ongoing series The Books Of Magic here. Skip to the second and third volumes, Summonings and Reckonings, which are more satisfying reads and introduce the supporting cast. They are also better deals; as mentioned, Bindings is overpriced. If you don't like those, you won't like this, and if you do then you can come back to it with a pre-established sympathy for and interest in young Tim Hunter. There will be a bit of confusion with regard to what has gone before, but not too much and mostly in relation to events that preceded Bindings anyway.
Fiction editor Nicolas Juzda
is currently studying law in Saskatchewan. He fills the void that was left in
his soul by contributing to Fanzing. He has twice been among the winners in
the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest for bad writing.
All characters are DC Comics
This piece is © 2002 by Nicolas Juzda
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