Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Knit Sub Book Review: Son of a Witch

This is the first in a series of 12 book reviews I plan to do in 2009. My choice for January was Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire.

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Son of a Witch is the second volume in what is now a trilogy of books in the Wicked series. The story follows the life of Liir, the probable son of Elphaba Thropp, famed Wicked Witch of the West. Throughout the novel Liir struggles to find himself and his purpose in life while making his way through Maguire's vividly imagined land of Oz. On his journey he encounters an unusual cast of characters which include some old faces from Wicked as well as some new ones. His actions are set against the backdrop of a political and religious upheaval in the Emerald City. This is a bildungsroman - a story of growth and development for the main character.

Let me open this review by saying that I am huge fan of Wicked, Maguire's first book in this series. I have read it multiple times and found something new to love about it in each reading. When I finally settled down to read its sequel, I was excited to travel into Oz once more and find the answers to some of the questions left unanswered in its predecessor. I was to be disappointed.

My criticisms of this novel must begin with its plot. Son of a Witch is unbearably slow and plodding. It also suffers from being terminally uninteresting. The entire first half of the novel is composed primarily of Liir's memories of the events occurring immediately after Wicked's conclusion, including what happened in the aftermath of Elphaba's demise, Liir's travels around Oz, and his eventual career in the military. While these memories provide essential background knowledge to the story, they are disjointed and rambling. I felt as if I was waiting for the "real" story to begin throughout the first 200 pages, and that's a long time to wait for a novel to catch up to real time.

When the novel does finally break from memories into current action, that action is slow and forgettable. The plot of the novel is tenuous at best and incomprehensible at worst, involving a new flying menace, the religious mania of a new emperor and the social upheaval of an Oz in transition that the reader never seems to know enough details about. It skips from one event to another with little to connect all the pieces together in a way that is satisfying to the reader.

Some plot points in Son are brought up and then disappear as the story lumbers on towards its conclusion. Many questions raised by the novel remain unanswered, and not in a good way that leaves you wanting more. The mysteries in this book are left unsolved in a way that leaves you wondering why you slogged through this book all the way to the end only to have it not explore its most interesting points. I found it very hard to find something to care about in this story.

The reason for the dullness of the novel's plot is undoubtedly Liir, who can not carry a whole novel by himself. In Wicked, Liir was a damaged child. He suffered from the neglect of his mother and the general uncaring attitudes of the people around him. Going into this book I expected him to still be pathetic in many ways. The nature of his upbringing would naturally leave him scarred. However, I did not expect Liir to remain useless and pathetic for the entire novel. Maguire never allows Liir to grow a spine, and Son suffers for this. Liir can't make decisions, has next to no talent at anything, lets everybody down and is generally boring to read about. This kid is even wishy washy on the subject of his own sexuality.

Liir doesn't make too much happen - things tend to happen around him and he reacts, usually in the most unsatisfying way possible. He struggles to find a path in life, but he dosen't seem to have strong enough feelings about anything to decide on a specific future. Even in the end of the novel, when Liir has supposedly grown and changed, his actions don't feel real or meaningful. Maguire was so successful at making this character a dud that his ending feels forced and imaginary.

The other characters in the book don't fare much better in the character development department. There are no characters to love in this novel- only ones to put up with as they pass through. The few characters from Wicked that appear in this book, such as Glinda, Nanny and Chistery, seem to function only to remind the reader of how much better they were in Wicked and seem oddly out of place in Son. There is a cloud hanging over this book that dulls even these very well developed and colorful characters.

Aside from Liir, there aren't really any other major characters to come to know. The handful of people we meet are all flat and uninspired. So much attention is focused on Liir that the reader doesn't really get a chance to enjoy reading in depth about anyone else.

The two exceptions to this are Candle and Trism, who have major parts within the plot. However, despite their integral roles in the story they are never given enough time or attention to develop as they should. Too many questions are left unanswered regarding these two. Both of them are far more interesting than Liir and I wish I had gotten a chance to learn more about them.

Maguire's writing style is complex and intricate. There can be no doubt that he is a talented wordsmith, but the joy of deciphering his text is completely lost within his boring storyline. This novel demands your full attention to understand and gives you little in return for your investment. I distinctly remember that it took multiple readings of Wicked to pick up the little nuances and references in Maguire's writing, and I'm sure that Son is much the same. This is a novel that probably becomes more comprehensible through re-reading, but it is so uninspired that I wouldn't want to read it again. Maguire's superior writing is dulled by his weak plot and weaker characters.

Despite my heaping helping of criticisms, there were some things I liked about this book. The richly imagined setting was one of those things. Oz remains as vivid and interesting as it was in Wicked. Everything from politics and geography to economics and religion has been detailed and presented to us. Oz feels like a real place. It is, in fact, the most developed character in the novel. It is this fully created and explored world that will lead me to read the third book in this series, A Lion Among Men, in time. I also loved the closing sentence of the novel. It is only four words long, and not entirely unexpected, but it makes up for a lot (and it opens up the door for - may the Unnamed God help us - another sequel involving Liir).

The novel interestingly concludes with an excerpt straight from Wicked. It is a touching passage between Elphaba and Fieyero that reminded me of how truly great that book was. Was it an apology from Maguire for the quality of this obviously inferior book? Most definitely not, but I couldn't help feeling that way as I read it and remembered how much I loved Wicked.

At the root of it all, the most disappointing thing about this novel wasn't just the plot or just the characters, it was how inferior it was to its predecessor. Wicked is one of my favorite novels, and Elphaba is one of my favorite characters in all of literature. While I understand that Son is very much its own novel, I was expecting the same quality of writing and sense of adventure that characterized the first book in the series. This novel is nowhere close to the greatness of that book. It feels as if Maguire wanted to capitalize on the success of the broadway adaptation of Wicked and pump out something quickly to sell a lot of books. The plot is boring, the characters are flat and the whole experience left me wanting more.

For the many faults I perceived in this novel, I'm going to give it 3 brooms out of 5. It was going to get 2.5, but the last line of the novel boosted it up a bit. I would not reccommend the purchase of this book to anyone, but if you are a fan of Wicked, it would be worth checking out of the library just to see how the story continues.


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