Thursday, January 20, 2011

Review - A Lion Among Men

A Lion Among Men (The Wicked Years, Book 3)This is the third book in the "Wicked Years" series from Gregory Maguire. I'm still trying to figure out what I really think about this book and why. As with the previous books, this novel gives us an alternate look at the world of Oz that many of us only know from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (most likely the Judy Garland movie, but also perhaps the book). I, for one, keep intending to go and read the many Oz books written by L. F. Baum, but sadly I've never done so.

That said, I'm fairly certain that (apart from the high level similarities such as local, character types, etc) Maguire's envisioning of Oz is quite different from Baum's. And that's not necessarily a bad thing…it's just different.

I enjoyed Wicked (book 1), although I preferred the hit Broadway play based on the novel. I liked Son of a Witch as a continuation of the story from book 1. It presented an intriguing follow-up to the intrigue and difficulties that were unraveling at the end of the first book.

With book 3, we catch up with the story a few years after book 2 and so in some ways it is a continuation of the saga. However, this book is largely an introspective presented to us by the Cowardly Lion and set alongside a bit of thoughtful backstory from Yackle as well as the slow moving action of the Time Dragon.

As for an overall storyline with rising and falling action, this story strays from the normal mode. The meta story involves a war being waged across the land and presents us with the Lion (Brrrr) interviewing Yackle on a site which will soon be right in the middle of an ensuing battle. The approaching armies add some urgency to the timeliness of their discussion but the war and the battle exist on the periphery so it's difficult to fully gage any rising or falling action or suspense based on the war in Oz.

Instead, we spend most of the time learning the backstory of the Cowardly Lion, beginning from his life in Oz around the same time Elphaba was making her mark and then following his actions up until the present day. Part of the narrative seems to be his search for family or at least for his own "origin story" to try and figure out where he came from and who he was.

The idea of identity figures strongly in the book. Over the years, Brrr has done what he can to stay comfortable and safe but often at the expense of any real definitive action on his part. He constantly finds himself in the middle of predicaments and sometimes he even feels strongly one way or another, but he quite often takes the path of least resistance attempting to avoid confrontation and commitment. His inaction (or sometimes, poorly planned/executed actions) lead to him being constantly slandered and associated with the bad forces around the land. He finds himself accused both of being an ally to Elphaba and and ally to the Wizard in her destruction. Similar paradoxical attributions happen throughout his life.

Brrr introspectively considers what it is that really matters in his life. He contemplates the repercussions of his actions (and inactions) and generally feels like he's let himself down, although he never seemed to have a clear set of expectations for himself.

His mission to interview Yackle is a sort of last-ditch effort to make something of himself…though at the same time, the main motivating factor for endeavoring on the mission is actually one of self-preservation so once again he is very much compelled into action rather than freely and consciously choosing to undertake this action.

By the end of the book, Brrr has a better sense of himself. He's still a bit confused. He's still not fully sure of where he fits in. But at least he's made up his mind to actually DO something….he's thought through some of the consequences of his potential action and decided that whatever the cost, he must do what he believes. And that's key…he finally has a cause he believes in, even if it's just a glimmer of belief.

Often I found the narrative to be an ambling mis-mash of ideas and stories. I kept trying to fit in some sort of larger meta-story or gather a better overall sense of how things were going in the larger world of Oz. But then I realized/decided that this book was more about individuals…personalities….Character….of taking control of our life by deciding WHAT we each want to do and WHY we want to do it…and then having the integrity to DO and LIVE the life we believe in.

So in the end, I felt like this story was more an exploration of the psychology of the individual than about some larger than life war in a fantasy land. That's not the sort of book I was expecting, but it was still an interesting read. I understand there's a 4th book being written in the same world and I'm interested to see where it goes. Maguire's stories (even those with a more "natural" progression/plot) seem intent on exploring human (or Lion) nature. I think if I approach his books with that in mind rather than expecting an adventure story, I'll have a better time. As it was, I didn't hate the book, I just found it more "work" than "entertainment" to read. If you've read it, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

2 out of 5 stars

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Oddyoddyo13 said...

I've never been much of a Wizard of Oz person, so I can't really say that I was terribly interested by the plot...BUT, the psychology of someone so (ahem) cowardly would be an interesting one to explore. Thanks for the review. :)

Okie said...'s not something I'd really re-read or necessarily recommend unless somebody was looking for thoughtful introspection. I was left without much feeling of accomplishment at the even though I felt like I knew the Lion a bit better (maybe even better than he knew himself), it didn't necessarily feel like a journey I really needed to take. Kind of strange.

Pretty good writing...but just kind of "meh" feeling at the end.