Disclaimers and Warnings! This review contains spoilers! I will tell you the ending. But don’t worry. I’ll writing “WARNING: ENDING REVEALED” before I get there. This review also contains ADULT CONTENT in the form of really bad kitty-kitty sex descriptions. You stand warned.
Note: This review was originally published on the main page of the site on October 17th, 2008 – three days after the book’s release date of October 14th. This is an exact transcription of that review.
It starts off very well, actually. Yackle is in the Mauntery of St. Glinda, getting ready to die. She is lain in a crypt, and tells the maunts to come back a year later to sweep up her bones. However, that old crone just won’t die and is still alive (though blind) after one year without food or water in a smelly old crypt.
Enter: the Cowardly Lion. Sir Brrr, actually. Working (as we will discover) as a secret service member of Emperor Shell’s Loyal Oz. Remember Shell? Elphaba’s brother. He’s the Emperor now. Sorta an absolutist despot.
Loyal Oz is on the brink of war with Munchkinland, which has seceded from the state. And the mauntery is right on the border between the two states. Brrr doesn’t have much time – but he has to collect Yackle’s history before returning to the Emerald City. He’s been charged with finding out the whereabouts of Liir, anything about Elphaba, but especially…the location of the Grimmerie. That magical text. Where is it? And how can Shell use it to his advantage?
Here’s where Maguire is at his best. Political intrigue has always been his forte. It would seem that (because of stuff I’ll talk about later) Brrr is out of favor in the Emerald City. And not being cut out for life in the wild, he has no choice but to try and rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the State, so that he can re-enter Ozian society. So this information means a lot to him.
But (and here’s where the story really starts) Yackle won’t give up any information to someone she can’t trust. So, she brokers a deal with Brrr: she’ll tell him her story if he tells her his. And so the tale begins….
So far, so good. Brrr tells us about his childhood. He meets his first friend, Jemmsy (a soldier) when Jemmsy is stuck in a trap, dying. Brrr decides against going for help, and instead to watch over the man as he dies. Then he decides to go off in search of Jemmsy’s hometown, to tell his father of the son’s death. This, he thinks, will be a very useful thing to do, and someone will finally love him and be his friend. The way this part of the story is told is quite touching: we end up feeling for the Lion, both because of his stupidity (in letting Jemmsy die) and because of his patheticness (in trying so hard to be loved).
Unfortunately, the rest of the story (and Brrr’s character) never really moves on from this characterization. Throughout the novel, we feel sorry for Brrr (because the guy really is pretty stupid) and a little annoyed too (he’s ridiculously pathetic as well). And Brrr never really evolves as a character.
Anyway, Brrr ends up being responsible for a massacre of Glikkus trolls in the town of Traum (he refuses to help them get away from their attackers, and chooses to literally play dead instead of taking action). He thus earns the sobriquet “the Cowardly Lion.” Then its off to the Emerald City, where he uses money that the city of Traum gave him (as a sort of pay-off for his role in the massacre, but being stupid, Brrr doesn’t see this) to set himself up as a kind of interior decorator.
So far, its all right. We’re still waiting for the story to start, but we’re entertained.
Then come the Animal Acts (remember those from Wicked?) and Brrr, like so many, is forced to leave civilization. He goes out into the wild and has several unremarkable encounters. That is, until the book gets really terrible.
I mean really terrible.
Brrr meets the Ghullim, a band of Ivory Tigers. They are majestic, hospitable, and (weirdly) caricatures of Muslim society. I mean really. There’s Muhlama, and Uyodor H’aekeem – some strange permutations of Arabic names. There are a lot of ablutions going on, some serious talk about the honor of the pride, talk of ritual killings, implied honor killings…strange to say, it looks like Maguire is painting a strange portrait of the stereotypes that Westerners have of Muslims. And I don’t think its in a critical way, either. It’s in a very….”hmmm, maybe I’ll make the cats Muslim!” kind of way. And it bugs me, you know, because I believe in the complexity of religious belief. I don’t know if I’m okay with Islam being turned into a tribal cat religion.
Then it gets worse. Brrr falls in love with Muhlama (an Ivory Tigress…wait, what a horrible, corny name! Ivory Tigress indeed)…and…and…
“She angled her rump, and the movement of her tail changed. It became the pendulum on a metronome, counting the slow movements until she pushed her pelvis higher and threw her head back, nipping at Brrr’s throat as he covered her beautiful coat with his own.
When he could think in words – was it then, was it later, he didn’t know – it was simply this: Now I fit in.
His reverie was delicious. Eyes closed. He was partly conscious of the floating stirrings of the world, its selvages restitching themselves into a prettier apprehension…” (p. 149)
and then, later, when he is discovered and kicked out of the tribe:
“Muhlama neither concurred with her father, nor protested his accusations. She couldn’t speak. For anger, for regret? Then he saw what they had already seen. She had begun to bleed. The iron stench of it, a wound too large to hide. A rivulet of orange blood that wouldn’t stop.
It seemed he hadn’t quite fit in, but she’d let him try anyway.”
AHHHHHH!!! First of all: what a bad, awkward sex scene. All of you who’ve read Wicked know that Maguire doesn’t do sex scenes very well, and should just stay away from them. This is further proof. It’s cliched, mechanical, and…weird. I mean…lion/tigeress sex? I mean, okay, but I’m a human. It’s not what I understand. Or want to read about, for that matter. Also: the part about not fitting in…that was just disturbing.
And its all downhill from there.
Yackle tells her story, too. She was born a crone, she was on the sidelines of Elphaba’s life…yeah, that’s pretty much it. She’s trying to figure out where she came from, and how she could die.
Really, this is a book in which nothing happens. 99% of the action is backstory. And backstory which we kind of already know. We know about the Lion and Dorothy. Sure, we don’t know about the Lion as interior decorator, but that’s not really that interesting, is it?
The one truly interesting part of the book is the Clock of the Time Dragon sub-plot. We see little episodes of it throughout the book. The Clock – guided by the Dwarf named Mr. Boss and a mysterious young woman (who apparently used to work as an anti-government agent) – is inching ever closer to the mauntery in which Brrr and Yackle are staying. The armies of Loyal Oz and Munchkinland are inching closer to a battle, too. This was the best part of the book. Watching the armies form, watching the battlefield develop, watching the suspense build. Maguire does this well.
WARNING: ENDING REVEALED!
At the end of the story, we discover that the mysterious lady with the Clock of the Time Dragon is Nor (who now calls herself Ilianora). Remember her? Fiyero’s daughter in Wicked? Imprisoned in SouthStairs prison in “Son of a Witch.” Yeah. She’s grown up to be really interesting. She’s got a fear of the word “I,” and has spent her life trying to bury her past self. At the same time, she also wants to be a writer of stories. Her character was mysterious, and also tied in well with “Wicked” and “Son of a Witch.” I wish we’d seen more of her.
At the very end, the Clock, Yackle, and Brrr end up in the same place. The Clock puts on a show. We discover that Brrr’s pet cat is actually a Cat, and responsible for Fiyero’s death. We discover that Yackle was born out of the Grimmerie. The Grimmerie was brought to Oz by a mysterious Wizard. We don’t know why. But Yackle was born out of it, to “be a witness” to Elphaba’s life. Whatever that means. She vanishes back into the Grimmerie. Brrr goes off to work on a farm for a bit. Ilianora (Nor) goes off to look for Liir’s baby girl. The war starts.
That’s it. The only worthwhile part of the book is really the last ten pages. I came to this book with several questions I wanted answered:
1. Where is Liir? Candle? Their baby? Glinda???
2. Is Elphaba coming back? (I think a lot of people want to know this one).
3. What the heck is the Clock of the Time Dragon?
1. Totally not answered. Glinda dropped off of the face of the earth after “Son of a Witch.” She’s mentioned here several times in passing, but we don’t know if she’s dead, in hiding, or what. Also: even though the book seemed to promise that we would find out about Liir and Elphaba’s grand-daughter, it failed to deliver. We know nothing.
2. Also nada. Yackle did say: ‘she’s coming back, you know’ at some point. But it was unclear what this meant. Elphie? Her grand-daugther? The Kumbric witch? Ozma (it was implied in the book that Ozma is not dead)? Lurlina? Damned if I know…
3. This one was answered. The Clock is the guardian of the Grimmerie. It is the physical manifestation of the Grimmerie’s power.
So really….I was disappointed by this book. If there’s going to be a Wicked Years Series, I sincerely hope that the next installment is better. This book was all back-story and no action. All ideas and no realizations. And far, far too much kitty-kitty sex for my taste.
Gregory Maguire: hear my plea. Stick to what you know. You’re a fractured fairy tale writer. You can’t really write original stories well (as Lost and now this, has proven). Stick to the Oz that Baum created. You do that better. Stick to politics. You do that well, too. Stop philosophizing. And write about a character that we know and love. Like Glinda. Or even Liir. Or Liir’s daughter, about whom I am legitimately curious.
Please. We’re your fans. We love you.