Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Lion Among Men by Gregory Maguire

First off, let me say, it’s been forever since I last posted. It’s not that I haven’t been reading. I have. I just haven’t finished a book. I know that’s probably worse. I tried to finish a collection of short stories by Gogol which I can’t seem to ever really finish. I started reading the Stephanie Plum book from last summer which I then lost. I started reading a collection of short stories compiled by Nick Hornby, which I also lost (and then found so hopefully I will finish it soon). Then I got Little Women at a used book store and destroyed the book with rain, snow, and coffee. My new job makes it increasingly difficult to read. Enter a five day vacation for Christmas which included two three hour train rides and two six hour drives. Not to mention four new books.

A Lion Among Men was one of those new books (my favorite one I got, mostly because it came as a surprise. I don’t remember ever asking for it or even mentioning I wanted to read it to anyone). This is the third book in the Wicked Years series and as the title may suggest, it is the true story of the Cowardly Lion. It is also very much about Mother Yackle, the mysterious old woman who always seems to be lurking around the series. The book picks up eight years after the events of Son of A Witch amidst the war between the Free State of Munchkinland and Loyal Oz. Mother Yackle is ready to die and is placed in the crypt of the Cloister of Saint Galinda in the Shale Shallows (a central location for many important happenings of the series). A year and a half later however she comes out of the crypt just as alive as she went in with the arrival of Brrr, the Cowardly Lion (a capital L because he talks). He has come as an emissary of the court in Emerald City to interview her about her connection with Elphaba and Liir. Yackle, however, being shrewd and pragmatic as much as she is mysterious offers Brrr a trade. If he tells her his life story including his shames she will answer his questions. With a little probing and some well placed questions (probably a little magic too) she gets him to spill his deepest darkest shames which he had repressed for years. We learn how Brrr got from shivering in a cage at Shiz University to the court investigator we see today. This includes his childhood in the Gillikin forest, how he came to be known as The Cowardly Lion, how and why he joined Dorothy on her quest, and what happened to him after she left Oz. We also learn why he is in the employ of the arguably evil Apostle Emperor (Shell Throppe, Elphaba’s brother) and what he is truly after. We also learn much more about Mother Yackle including how she came to be and why she was always on the outskirts of Elphaba and Liir’s life. Both have compelling and interesting histories.

The book explores many of the same themes as the other two Wicked books. With any revisionist view on a story the over-arching theme is always did the main character get a bad rap? Did Elphaba deserve to be called Wicked? Did Brrr deserve to be called Cowardly? We grow attached to the hopeless Lion who seems to always get a raw deal and can never see anything through to the end, “running away” when things get difficult. He views them as shames of his life. No discussion of cowardess is complete, however, without the underlying idea of morality. What makes a person courageous? Is it cowardly to lie down in the face of war (that’s how Brrr got his nickname)? Did Brrr do the right thing with the wrong circumstances? You be the judge. With the secondary back-story of Mother Yackle we explore the idea of fate. Why was she in Oz on the outskirts of Elphaba and Liir’s life? Why can’t she die? Are there things she was sent here to accomplish? Then the ever present Clock of the Time Dragon shows up to answer many of these questions.

I really liked this book. I was slightly disenfranchised with the series because of Son of A Witch but this one definitely reinstated my interest. Perhaps it is because it is with a familiar character that you have an attachment to. Who knows? Much of the criticism of the first two books is that they are long and slow. They are difficult to get through. This is not Harry Potter we’re talking about. It is a much more adult view of the classic story. I didn’t feel at all that this book was difficult (I felt that especially about Son of A Witch). The world is established by now and the confusing elements are gone. Maguire no longer needs to set the scene for the reader, so perhaps that is why it was an easier read. Not to mention now that the story is winding down he can answer questions instead of asking them. I liked the fact that it included elements and characters from both previous books and answered a few questions left hanging. It inspired me to reread both books. I remember very little from Wicked (it was years ago that I read it) and maybe I should give Son of A Witch a second chance. Not to mention, I cannot wait for the next book to come out. There are so many unanswered questions still. What happened to Liir and his baby (a green girl like Elphaba)? What happened to Ozma, will she return when Oz most needs her like the prophecy says? The fourth book, who’s working title is Out of Oz, may be about Glinda. I have a few ideas as to her backstory thanks to this book.

I definitely recommend reading A Lion Among Men. And if you have not read (or finished reading) Wicked do that first. Read the series, it’s worthwhile.