[Note: Spoilers about Out of Oz and the Wicked Years series may follow.]
Ah, my first book review of the summer. Out of Oz is the fourth and—allegedly—final book in the Wicked Years series by Gregory Maguire. While I have read the previous three books and was a fan of the original Oz books in my youth, I don’t consider myself a rabid fan of this series. In my opinion, Maguire’s subsequent works have never quite lived up to Wicked, and this is no exception—although it does have some redeeming qualities and will probably please the dedicated fans.
The book picks up several years after where Son of a Witch left off, and an undetermined time after the closing of A Lion Among Men. In Oz, Shell, the brother of Elphaba the Wicked Witch, has installed himself as a holy emperor, Munchkinland is fighting for independence, and Elphaba’s most valuable legacies—her granddaughter Rain and the magic Grimmerie—are sought by all sides.
The story here suffers from two major shortcomings, the first of which is that it is bloated. The print version runs nearly 600 pages, and could have been told more convincingly in about 400. A reviewer from the AV Club rightly notes that this book builds upon an unfortunate and unnecessary trend in fantasy novels—the extended walkabout. Wandering can be done well if it advances the plot and produces engaging encounters and character growth. Here, the third of the book devoted to aimless wandering accomplishes little aside from alienating less dedicated readers. Sure, danger awaits the ragged cast of characters on all sides, but the extended flight from capture just didn’t work for me. I moved through this section slowly because I was so annoyed with the characters, a point I’ll return to momentarily.
Had this been a standalone book by a less-established author, I suspect an editor would have advised this section be condensed or jettisoned. Instead, it appeared to be a bit of an ego trip for Maguire, allowing him to present one last round-trip tour of Oz and to bring back many characters from the previous books for cameos. These cameos also contributed to the book’s bloat; some of the appearances made little sense, others dragged on way too long. Frankly, I couldn’t even remember who some of the characters were or what role they played in the earlier books, a sure sign that their curtain calls were not needed. Certainly, after muddling through A Lion Among Men (the weakest book in the series and one devoted to depicting the endless humiliations of Brr the Cowardly Lion), I did not need to see the parade of minor characters that pop up to taunt him again. No wonder the guy is so miserable.
This leads me to my second problem with the book, which is the lack of engaging characters. I realized a bit more than halfway through the book that it was not only overly long, it was crammed with characters who are utterly unlikable and miserable all the time. The story here clearly belongs to Rain, but it’s hard to build an engaging plot around a child character who spends the first half of the book so withdrawn and unsociable that characters repeatedly speculate that she might be mentally deficient. However, the rest of the ensemble cast around which the book resolves is equally unlikable. The three married couples—Nor and Brr, Mr. Boss and Daffy nee Sister Apothocarie, and Liir and Candle—seem to exhibit little in the way of genuine affection, and in fact they border on disdain for their partners and the rest of the group at times. The fellowship is also more or less mirthless throughout, with the exception of Dorothy (yes, that Dorothy) who seems to have had her optimism ground out of her by the end of the story. I understand a war is going on, but even Harry Potter got to stop and play quidditch once in a while instead of just moving from one damp, miserable living situation to the next.
Also on the character notes, a few of the book’s main characters seemed totally unnecessary and two-dimensional to me. I didn’t understand the point of Iskinaary or Candle (who, granted, is Rain’s mother but who does almost nothing of substance here), and I found Mr. Boss the most hateful character in the entire book. He does nothing but complain, inexplicably hangs around long past his usefulness, and when the death of another main character close to him finally seems to provide an opportunity to explore his depth or give him some animus, we get nothing at all. Nothing. (In fairness, other reviewers seem to enjoy Mr. Boss and Little Daffy and think they provide “comic relief.” I found their banter absolutely stale and unamusing. The fact that they just seem to vanish in the book’s final act only left me wishing they’d vanished long before.)
All that being said, the book is not without its redeeming qualities. Once Rain reaches adolescence and is forced into discovering society and romance, the story picks up steam quickly. The crucial decisions faced by Rain, her friend Tip, and Liir at the book’s climax create true tension and flesh out these characters in a satisfying way. As a writer, Maguire also deserves credit for weaving together so many loose threads and story lines from not only his own novels but also from L. Frank Baum’s Ozish lore, and doing so in a way that concludes the series nicely. The conclusion and the book’s main twist will not come as a surprise to readers of Baum’s earlier series, but as a fan of the original books I approved of the way in which this plot point was integrated. Like the best moments of the series, it took classic Oz and put a modern, unsentimental twist on it. The end for these characters are not necessarily happy—as Glinda alludes to, there are no “happy” endings in life—but they represent a path toward a well-deserved retirement. Readers who have not followed the Wicked Years series devotedly and those who prefer their fantasy a bit upbeat may wish to skip this book, but for lovers of Oz who are willing to do the work there is some reward.