Most people realize by now that Gregory Maguire's WICKED is something of a publishing phenomenon. The bestselling novel, which was a retelling of L. Frank Baum's THE WIZARD OF OZ from the perspective of Elphaba Thropp, the Wicked Witch of the West, has achieved perpetual exposure through the popularity of "Wicked, " the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical based on the book, which sells out both in Times Square and in its numerous touring productions.
Given all the hype surrounding WICKED and its theatrical offspring, it's easy to forget that Maguire's books set in Oz are not only entertaining reworkings of Baum's initial output but also complex, often dark, political and personal dramas in their own right. Readers of these richly imagined works will be pleased to know that Maguire, by retitling the novels (which include SON OF A WITCH and now A LION AMONG MEN) The Wicked Years, seems to indicate a desire to, like Dorothy in the original Oz chronicles, revisit Oz again and again.
Fans of the series will remember that the Cowardly Lion made a brief cameo appearance as a small, frightened cub in WICKED. There, Elphaba's pity for the pitiful creature contributed to her humanity and to her emergence as a misunderstood but ultimately sympathetic character. In A LION AMONG MEN, the Lion --- who was christened Brrr because of his tendency to shiver in fear --- is now fully grown into his powers, trying hard to navigate the treacherous territory between Animals and Men, nearly warring factions whose disagreements have grown increasingly tense.
Brrr, who's now in service to the Emperor of Oz, has been ordered to the Cloister of Saint Glinda to interrogate the mysterious oracle Yackle as to whether or not she knows anything about the location of Elphaba Thropp's offspring, Liir. Crotchety Yackle, however, insists that Brrr provide some background of his own in exchange for her information. So even as Yackle tells the peculiar story of her life, Brrr delves into his own long and troubled story, of his emergence from the Great Gillikin Forest, of his feelings of failure and betrayal that have caused him to label himself a coward. Meanwhile, civil war rages around the relatively peaceful walls of the Cloister, and it seems likely that Brrr will have his courage tested once and for all.
Maguire's newest novel delightfully blends many of Baum's original characters (including the truly catty Glass Cat) with characters of his own creation. A LION AMONG MEN also will likely please many fans of WICKED who were somewhat less satisfied with its first sequel, SON OF A WITCH (and, on a side note, those who are picking up A LION AMONG MEN first would do well to read the books in order if they hope to understand the complex relationships among individual characters and communities). Its unanswered questions, however, will lead these same people to live in hope that The Wicked Years series will continue for volumes to come.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 14, 2008
A Lion Among Men: Volume Three in the Wicked Years