Friday, December 16, 2005

Son of a Witch

In some ways Gregory Maguire has it pretty tough. About a decade ago Maguire unleashed his novel Wicked into the world. An inventive novel that recast the iconic character Elphaba the Wicked Witch of the West as a hero and revolutionary fighting against the tyranny of a despot known simply as the Wizard, it's one of those rare books that developed a life all its own. Early reviews in the fantasy markets were highly favorable, but it became one of those books to really spread, at least as I remember it, by word of mouth. People who would never normally read fantasy were passing it around and enjoying the inventive retelling of the classic story of the land of Oz. People I worked with at the time, and even people in my family, who barely read a book a year were picking it up and reading it on their daily commute. And, of course, it developed into a hit musical on Broadway that's now enjoying a successful national tour.

So when I say Maguire has it pretty tough, I say it in regards to the expectations for his sequel to Wicked, an enjoyable book called Son of a Witch. While Wicked carried the story of Elphaba to the starting point of the original Wizard of Oz tale, Son picks up where the Baum book left off, right after the death of the Witch. Elphaba left behind two young children, a daughter Nor and a young boy named Liir who may or may not be Elphaba's son. Without knowing what else to do, young Liir follows Dorothy and her yellow brick road menagerie back to Oz hoping the Wizard might tell him if Elphaba is really his mother and give him the same sense of purpose the Wizard gave Dorothy and her friends.

Unfortunately, the Wizard refuses to even see young Liir, so the boy enters into a decade of soul searching. He travels, looking for Nor across Oz and in the prisons of Emerald City. He then joins the millitary, enjoying the structure it provides his life. But eventually his rearing and possible heritage catch up to him and he finds himself in demand to help foster a new revolution.

An odd series of deaths, deaths leaving the victims with their faces scraped off, start appearing all across the land. As Liir travels he discovers the new head of Oz, an Emperor with ties both to Elphaba's and Liir's past, sits behind the machinations. The new Emperor uses the strange killings to spread distrust between the various races of Oz: Munchkins against humans, humans against sentient animals, and so on. With all this distrust between each other the only place they can turn to for leadership is the seat of power at Emerald City. Wielding Elphaba's flying broom and donning her magical cape Liir makes some small but bold gestures that help the populace of Oz and re-plant the seeds of hope Elphaba first tried to spread a generation before.

In some ways this new novel is stronger than Wicked. Wicked, at least for me, has several long stretches that are pretty dry and need some work to really be necesssary. But Son is a much tighter work, making use of flashbacks and different viewpoints to help move the story along. The secondary characters here are better developed and seem less stock types than those in the earlier novel. And Liir's quest---both to find himself and to save the people of Oz--- is much easier to believe and track with than the motivations that drove the bitter yet heroic Elphaba.

But so far the reviews for Son have been pretty mixed. What Wicked has that no further sequel can ever have is a tight connection to an iconic character. Readers enjoyed rethinking the Witch's actions and seeing them from a different perspective, and no further sequel can have that. So when you read Son and all its coming sequels, for there are hints that can easily lead to at least one more book in this world, read it on its own merits. Read it as a well-wrtten, well crafted fantasy that can stand on its own two legs. You'll enjoy it much more.


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