Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Books of Magic

One of the teenagers who works as a page (shelving books) at my library handed me this book ages ago. I am ashamed at how long it took me to read this - but I have the tendency to wait till I'm in just the right mood for a certain kind of book, which tends to make for a more positive reading experience. Although I have to say, even if I hadn't been in the mood for a fantasy graphic novel full of mythological and folkloric archetypes and other way cool stuff, I probably would have enjoyed this just as much.

Timothy Hunter is out skateboarding one day, minding his own business, thinking his own teenage thoughts. Several mysterious figures observe him from the shadows. Through their conversation we learn that Timothy, although he doesn't know it, has the potential to become an immensely powerful wizard. The men argue about becoming involved. One says they should leave well enough alone - that Timothy will come into his power without their interference. Another says Timothy needs their help to choose his path responsibly, that they must show him "enough about the labyrinth to walk a true path through it." And one says they should just kill him to ensure the power doesn't fall into the wrong hands.

In the end, though, they agree to show Timothy "what magic truly is, and what it was, and what it may become." Timothy is skeptical and a bit frightened of the men when they confront him. It isn't until the man calling himself Dr. Occult takes Timothy's yo-yo and turns it into a real, hooting and flapping owl, that Timothy begins to take them seriously. And from there Timothy travels into the past, present and future -- to a faery market, to mysterious places with mysterious creatures, into the very cosmos -- each time with a different guide. With every vision, every encounter, Timothy learns something about magic: its history, its power, its manifestation, its cost. And with each new thing he learns, he comes closer to the momentous decision he must make about himself and his own life.

Fans of the Sandman books are sure to enjoy this one - and as a delightful, added bonus, characters from those books have cameos in this one. This is a great choice for younger teens who are aren't quite ready for the darkness and violence of the Sandman books but find the meticulous worldbuilding and sense of wonder of those - as well as Gaiman's other fiction - appealing. Roger Zelazny has written an excellent introduction in which he notes the parallels between this work and the archetypes of the hero detailed in Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces - for any lit students out there who love fantastic fiction, there is an interesting paper to be written right there! The artwork is arresting and powerful and, as always, I am amazed by the way different artists illustrating parts of the same story can bring so much individuality to the tale while maintaining its sense of unity. This book would be worth reading even if it were just the artwork - and any fans of Charles Vess out there who haven't seen this should pick up a copy immediately!

This reminded me of Bradbury's The Halloween Tree, in which the boys travel through space and time, learning about the history of Halloween and the perception of death in different cultures and time periods around the world. My library shelves this in the YA section, but I think it would appeal to fantasy lovers of all ages. It lacks some of the complexity of the Sandman books, but it is a very engaging story all the same. Timothy is a very generic teen character, and everything around him is so amazing and awe-inspiring that he becomes almost a foil for the reader - we become Timothy; we see what he does and feel what he feels, and in the end, after experiencing what he has, we realize that we have formed our own decision as well. It's a very effective way of telling a story.

The Books of Magic by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess and Paul Johnson (DC Comics, 1993)

Also reviewed at:
Burning Leaves: "The painterly style of the artwork recalls delicate watercolors and could easily stand on its own separate from the dialogue. It is so beautiful, in fact, that oftentimes it distracted me from reading."
Puss Reboots: "I chose to read only one book per day, thus spreading out the experience over four days. It's not my favorite graphic novel that I've read but it's certainly one that will stick with me."
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On: "The story is wonderfully written by Neil Gaiman. I read all 190 pages of it in one sitting unable to put it down."


  1. I bought the four original issues of this book when they were first published! I enjoyed this book a lot, but warn those who might be interested in subsequent books about Tim Hunter that they were wildly uneven, and never to me reached the fun of the original.

    Funny how Tim looks a lot like the boy wizard who came a decade later, eh?

  2. Girl Detective - Oh, that's a shame about the other books. My library doesn't own them, but I was hoping to find them somewhere. Yes, Tim does have a certain look about him, doesn't he? Interesting!


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