Review: ‘A Lion Among Men’ by Gregory Maguire

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Thursday, September 2, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a Comment

Title: A Lion Among Men

Author: Gregory Maguire

Published: Headline Review, 2009, pp. 426

Genre: Fantasy

Blurb: While civil war looms in Oz, an oracle named Yackles prepares for death.  Before her final hour, the Cowardly Lion arrives searching for information about Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West.  Yackles, who hovered on the sidelines of Elphaba’s life, demands some answers of her own.

Brrr surrenders his story: abandoned as a cub, his earliest memories are gluey hazes, and his path from infancy in the Great Gilikin Forest is no Yellow Brick Road.  In the wake of laws that oppress talking Animals, he avoids a jail sentence by serving the war-mongering Emperor of Oz.

Where, when and why: I was given this book as a present last Christmas, so I thought it was about time I got round to reading it while I could still vaguely remember the other two books in the trilogy.  It also counts towards my Books Off the Shelf Challenge and is book 18/50.

What I thought: This book is the third and final installment in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked trilogy and I have to say I’m rather relieved.  I found Wicked odd, but enjoyed it because of the inventive reimagining of the land of Oz and its characters.  Son of a Witch was even more peculiar and only interesting in the light it shed on events in the previous book.  With A Lion Among Men I couldn’t help but feel that Maguire had deliberately left loose ends in book two purely so that he could write a trilogy, as the book was forced and at times even painful to read.

A Lion Among Men tells the stories of the Lion and Yackle, neither of which, unfortunately, are particularly interesting or relevant because they are so far removed from the original tale of Dorothy and Elphaba.  This tenuous link is the only thing which makes this book bearable: if it were about different characters then there would be nothing to recommend this story at all.  The two narratives are haphazard in their organisation, unbalanced in their delivery and unrelated to one another, so don’t really interweave very well.  Plot twists which were presumably meant to be surprising came across as irrelevant and were dismissed rather than developed.  It felt as though Maguire was being perverse for the sake of it a lot of the time and that does not a good novel make.

Ignoring the confused plot and annoying characters, there were moments of this book which I quite enjoyed.  I liked the importance of books in this novel and how they were described:

Books could seem to unleash all the hallelujahs of hell…but even books that did not detonate into history, as the Grimmerie had, could still whisper their private secrets. (p. 19)

He didn’t remember that a mere book might reek of sex, possibility, fecundity.  Yet a book has a ripe furrow and a yielding spine, he thought, and the nuances to be teased from its pages are nearly infinite in their variety and coquettish appeal.  And what new life can emerge from a book.  Any book, maybe. (p. 399)

The descriptions are evocative, and  seem peculiarly appropriate given how I spent my time at university learning that all books are essentially about sex.  Either that or my lecturers were particularly obsessed.

I also enjoyed some of the humour.  Some of it fell very flat, but there were a few gems which stood out.  I particularly liked the moment when the Lion asks the Dwarf if he knows what will happen next, to which the Dwarf responds:

Of course I don’t know…  I’m the servant here.  When did you ever know a dwarf to be in charge? (p. 382)

This is the sort of mockery of fairytale and fantasy stereotypes which made Wicked work, but which has been sadly lacking from both of the subsequent installments.  Such a shame.

Where this book goes: The completist in me demands that I keep this book as I have the rest of the trilogy.  If I ever run out of shelf space the whole set are in dire danger of going though.

Tea talk: Thanks to the delightful August weather (apparently nobody told the weather that it’s meant to be summer), I’ve had a rotten cold for the past few days.  I’ve been combatting this with lots of delicious Lady Grey tea, laced liberally with honey.

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