Gregory Maguire’s “Out of Oz’’ is an ambitious work of fantasy. It’s reminiscent of both “The Lord of the Rings’’ and Harry Potter series. But, unlike those other books, the Oz trilogy is saddled with the burden of having been derived from L. Frank Baum’s popular 1900 book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,’’ with its wonderful, much-beloved characters. Sadly, Maguire’s darker, more complex takeoff puts a strain on our affections.
I wanted to like this book. Just like I wanted to like its predecessors, “Wicked’’ and “Son of a Witch.’’ But, I found myself admiring Maguire’s cleverness more than I enjoyed actually reading the book. For instance, making the naive (and slightly daft) Dorothy stand trial for the murder of Nessarose, Wicked Witch of the East, and her sister, Elphaba, Wicked Witch of the West, was inspired.
Maguire is imaginative but he needs to be more concise and selective. In creating his fantastical world he buries us in unfamiliar and made-up words, places, names, and species. It is easy to get lost. Similarly, he tends to overwhelm with details surrounding characters, even ones of lesser importance. And when you finally reach a character you recognize and care about, like the Cowardly Lion, you begin to delight at the reinventions surrounding him. Until, once again, Maguire unloads detail about this character - and his wife and his first love and his wife’s brother and his wife’s brother’s wife.
He also seems a bit too partial to flowery language. Words like “Ergo,’’ “flummoxed,’’ and “tantamount’’ all appearing in the same paragraph make the reading experience feel sluggish.
Which is a shame. The story ideas are so fun. The first installment, “Wicked,’’ recounts the story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, and her rise and fall. Its follow-up, “Son of a Witch,’’ follows Elphaba’s son, Liir, as he searches for his own magic and has a child. “Out of Oz’’ focuses on the journey of Rain, the gifted granddaughter of the Wicked Witch of the West and the daughter of Liir.
When we first meet the adolescent Rain, the land of Oz has been locked in heated battle over possession of a powerful book of magic called the Grimmerie. The book is protected by a traveling minstrel show: a dwarf with a mouth for dirty jokes, the familiar Cowardly Lion referred to as Brrr, and his human wife with a haunted past, Ilianora. They travel the land with a magical clock in the shape of a dragon called the Clock of the Time Dragon that sees the future.
The Clock of the Time Dragon visits the household of Lady Glinda where Rain has been living as a household servant. She’d been left there for her own protection by her father. Glinda’s house has been commandeered by General Cherrystone, a violent lackey of Oz, who intends to use her property and surrounding lands to build ships and attack Munchkinland in the name of profit. One night, during a minstrel show for Cherrystone and his soldiers, the Clock foretells the foiling of his plans, which comes to pass, thanks to Glinda and Rain, who use a spell from the book of magic. Now Rain has to flee from Cherrystone with the minstrel show and take the book of magic with her. This sets Rain off on an odyssey to discover her identity and get to the bottom of the unrest and division in Oz.
One of my favorite characters in this book is Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, who, it turns out, isn’t so much a force of evil set on getting rid of Dorothy as she is a misunderstood genius. Who else but a genius could do what she did: create flying monkeys who could talk? However, striking reimaginings alone do not a great reading experience make.
Perhaps Gregory Maguire is like Elphaba - a misunderstood genius weighed down by creativity lacking in economy.