Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Lion Among Men

A Lion Among Men, by Gregory Maguire
$17.79 in the Hansisgreat Gift Shop
ISBN: 0060548924
This is the third book in a series that began with Wicked, telling the story of Oz from the perspective of the Witch of the West. In my opinion, A Lion Among Men is the best in the series so far. Its hero is Brrr, known to Dorothy and her friends as the Cowardly Lion.
Brrr is abandoned in the forest as a cub and forced to grow up in hiding, as the newly appointed Wizard passes aggressive laws restricting the rights of Oz's talking animals. His first contact with the Wizard's regime occurs when he encounters a dying soldier, befriends him briefly, and agrees to carry a message to his platoon, stationed in an outpost near the Lion's forest. 
When the Lion arrives, he is given a position in the Wizard's administration even as his fellow talking animals are politically suppressed. Considered a turncoat by his own kind, he is soon labeled "cowardly" by the citizens of Oz.
Our story begins when Brrr visits a dying oracle named Yackle, whom he believes has information about the Wicked Witch of the West. In exchange for what she knows, Yackle demands to hear the story of Brrr's own life: his childhood, and the path that took him from being a lonely lion cub in the woods to one of the Wizard's most trusted 
advisors.
It's an exciting story. There is a colony of ghosts, and a community of talking Bears living in hiding until the Wizard's reign ends and they can return to polite society. Maguire has developed the Land of Oz very well, and by now many of the neighborhoods into which the story takes us are familiar and comforting. The Wicked Witch herself never actually appears, but her influence is felt in many corners.
It's interesting: in the first book, Maguire considered whether the Witch in Oz really was "wicked", or simply misunderstood. Here he's managed to do the same with the lion. Is he "cowardly", selling out to the brutal despot who oppresses his people; or is he simply a practical minded collaborator who accepts that the Wizard is here to stay, so it pays to be on the winning side?
It's probably best to read this series from the beginning, and Wicked really is outrageously enjoyable so you won't regret it if you do. Even if you're not familiar with the first volume or its sequel, Son of a Witch, however, you should be able to follow this volume independently. A modern classic enjoys a renaissance as a terrific new fantasy series that's both original and creative.

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