Monday, March 11, 2013

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire (novel)

When I stumbled across a copy of Out of Oz and saw it called the fourth and final book of Gregory Maguires The Wicked Years series, I was motivated to read Son of a Witch and A Lion Among Men. As you'll see in my reviews of Son and Lion, I was unclear on how to evaluate them. As standalone novels, they were not particularly impressive. But if taken together as book two of a trilogy that began with Wicked and concludes with Out of Oz, their flaws might actually be virtues. Until reading Out of Oz, I just can't tell.

I first read Wicked before there was any hint of a series, and I loved it. I also swore that I'd never read it again. But when reading Son and Lion, it was pretty clear there were plot points and nuances referring back to Wicked that needed to be understood to fully appreciate those two and Out of Oz. So with some trepidation, I decided to re-read Wicked.

At this point it's almost impossible for anyone to have not at least heard of this book and have a sense of what it's about. But in case you haven't . . . here's a mostly spoiler-free description.

This is what the subtitle proclaims, a biography of Elphaba Thropp, better known as the Wicked Witch of the West. But it's not the Witch you know from the Oz books or the film, and it's not even the Oz you know. Maguire keeps the broad outline the same, but overall this is a dark story set in a dark Oz.

Elphaba, born with green skin and sharp teeth, grows up largely alone except for her younger sister and her parents. They send her off to college (there are colleges in Oz? Yes indeed) where chance pairs her with Galinda Arguenna. Yes, the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch of the South were roommates in college. Who'd have thought it? In college, Elphaba is radicalized by the increasing oppression of the talking Animals, and ultimately becomes a revolutionary and a terrorist. But all her efforts lead to more harm than good, with Elphaba having an amazing talent for doing things at the perfect time for them to explode in her face. She attempts to withdraw from the fray, but always gets sucked back in when it's too late to do good but not too late to make the situation worse. The end is inevitable, the only question is how she'll get there. Maguire makes that journey a fascinating ride. It's an Oz that's much more nuanced and dangerous than the original, but one that on the whole is far more realistic.

It's a brilliant, brilliant book. It's also an unrelenting and depressing tragedy. No-one comes out better than they went in, only a few manage to hold their ground. Most are ground down, humiliated, and ultimately broken. The lucky are dead, the unlucky are cast aside to live with their fates. The most tragic of them is Elphaba herself, whose attempts to do well fail in a manner that results in her becoming almost everything she's striven against. In short, it ends with no hope, no forgiveness, and no redemption.

By contrast, Son and Lion (for all their flaws) seem to offer a chance that things are turning around. While reading them it was clear there were nuances I'd forgotten from Wicked, and I wanted to approach Out of Oz ready to pick up on them.  The re-read did indeed freshen those nuances; there are parts of both that are now more significant - or at least less mysterious. Nonetheless, Wicked itself remains unrelenting tragedy. Next up: Out of Oz. Wish me luck.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Lion Among Men, by Gregory Maguire (novel)

A Lion Among Men is the sequel to Wicked and Son of a Witch. Wicked is a brilliant, brilliant book, but it was such a tragedy I swore not to ever re-read it. Son and Lion have been sitting on the to-be-read shelf for years, and with Out of Oz described as the conclusion to the cycle, it seemed time to read them (see my review of Son for more detail).

A Lion Among Men has a lot of the same flaws as Son of a Witch. It rambles, and the narrative is mostly a series of flashbacks. But when taken together with Son, it very much appears that the two are essentially the third book of a trilogy. Middle books of trilogies are usually the weakest, and in some ways their task is to set up the final book. I won't know if this assessment is true until reading Out of Oz, but the idea is promising enough that I'm unwilling to write the book off.

As standalone novels, neither Lion nor Son are up to the level of Maguire's other work. They both ramble, they both have an odd narrative focus, and neither resolves the story well. Further, they take place largely in parallel and end at about the same point in time, but with little interaction between them. That's not a particularly good thing, and under other circumstances it would be enough such that I would not pursue the series further.

Note, though, that this is almost exactly the same structure that The Two Towers has as part of the Lord of the Rings. No, I'm not comparing Wicked Years to LoTR in any way; aside from the two both being fantasies they have little in common. But if The Two Towers had been released as two short novels following Fellowship of the Ring, I'd have the same criticism.

So should you read this book? Maybe. If Out of Oz serves Wicked Years as well as Return of the King did Lord of the Rings, the answer will be an unquestioning 'yes.' if not . . . then it has to be judged strict on its own merits. Fortunately, it has merits, and more merits than Son of a Witch. Telling much of the story in flashback serves this book better than Son, with there being more tension in the plot and better coherence to the story over all. In on particular plot twist, the flashback actually improves the reveal. ISon, Liir is far more acted upon than he actually acts. In LionBrrr grows and changes convincingly over time. The novel ends with him in a much different frame of mind, and there is promise of an interesting result to come of it. But that's also a weakness, as it seem to just be setting the stage for Out of Oz. Whether that's good or bad will depend on whether Out of Oz is actually a conclusion to a trilogy or 'just' another story.

But before reading Out of Oz, I'm going to break my vow and re-read Wicked. Wish me luck.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire

This is the sequel to Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. I adored Wicked, but it was such a tragedy I swore not to ever re-read it. When Son came out I picked it up with some trepidation, but a series of mediocre reviews and the advent of more good books by other folks pushed it further and further back into the to-be-read shelf. Eventually it was completely buried.

Recently the fourth and final volume of what's now called The Wicked Years has been published, so when stumbling across Son it was clear the time to read it had come. Verdict: not as good as Wicked, not as bad as I'd feared. It rambles, but so did Wicked. The difference is that Wicked was intensely involving both for the story and how it mirrored our contemporary world, and thus those rambles mattered. Son lacks the intensity of the events and the tragic fascination you develop for the main character, and thus is merely acceptable. If it were the first novel of the series rather than the second, I'd not pursue them any further. But since Wicked was so good and I found both of the other two books in remaindered hardback, I'll be diving into A Lion Among Men and Out of Oz shortly.

Update: I've just finished reading A Lion Among Men, and it's caused me to revise my opinion somewhat. A review of Lion will be up soon, I'll put a link here once it has jelled.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

A Trio of Wild Cards (short stories, mosaic novel)

There was a relatively brief fad in science fiction and fantasy for shared world books. A number of writers would get together, define a setting, and all write stories in the shared settings. These had varying degrees of success, and most are gone and forgotten.

One notable exception is the Wild Cards series, originally led by George R. R. Martin but eventually spread around to a number of other folks. The first volume came out in 1987. Since then they've moved from publisher to publisher, still holding to the same theme and exploring it in mostly interesting ways. Volume 22 is expected shortly.

These books were an attempt to show superpowers and their use in the real world. That's a common trope these days, but at the time it was pretty new. The background they developed for this involved an alien race called the Takisans, a hereditary tyranny by a small group with psychic powers. In looking for a method to extend and improve those powers, they developed a mutagenic virus that became known as the wild card. The virus was too dangerous to turn loose on their home world so they tested it on a lost Takisian colony - us - shortly after World War II. The virus was deployed by spraying it over New York City, but the deployment wound up being relatively small. Nor was it particularly virulent. If you didn't get it in the initial deployment, you probably didn't get it. If you did, your chances weren't good. 90% of those infected died, usually of some horrible deformity caused by the virus. 9% got the deformity but didn't die. 1% survived with some sort of power. The stories were set from shortly before deployment and moved forward to the then-current date.

The first few sets of books were written as triplets. There would be two books of short to mid-length stories written by various people, then a 'mosaic novel' that would tie together the threads introduced in the short pieces. This pattern has been followed for most of the books since then.

I was and am a huge fan of George R. R. Martin, so bought read the  series as the books came out. They were enjoyable, but by volume eight or nine the quality seemed to be falling off and I stopped reading them.

Recently I read a volume of NESFA Press' collection of Roger Zelazny's short works. It included several stories he wrote for the first Wild Card series and were quite enjoyable. A few days later we were heading out on vacation, so I dug out the first three Wild Card books for airplane reading - Wild Cards, Aces High, and Jokers Wild. They're not large books, and by our first night back home I'd finished them.

The verdict? They're airplane reading. The series as a whole is mostly fluff, with a few exceptions here and there. The short stories are uneven, running from the very good (Zelazny, Martin) to the mediocre to the downright bad. The mosaic novel Jokers Wild is better, and does a good job of tying together the threads of the first two books. It provides a satisfying conclusion to the first arc, but unfortunately doesn't make the poor threads any better. The re-read matched my memory of them, and reminded me that the writers I liked best got less involved as the series went on. They were a fine way to pass time in airports and lines, but I've probably got much better things sitting in the to-be-read pile at home. I'll neither be re-reading the rest nor seeking out the ones I don't have.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Future book: "The Streisand Effect and Me" by Ken Matherne

One of my favorite blogs, Popehat, has been threatened with a lawsuit by a Mr. Ken Matherne of the Global Wildlife Center. Well, maybe it's a threat of suit. There are threats in there and a mention of lawyers, but it's hard to separate the threats of legal action from the threats of harassment from the simply incoherent rantings. I read the threatening letters a couple of times, but familiarity quickly bred contempt, and that's going to be the judge's perogative. Don't expect me to explain it to you, just read it and enjoy the spectacle.

In any case, I have two words for Mr. Matherne: Streisand Effect. His conduct has already pushed Popehat's old article on him, The Zookeeper Is Very Fond of Dumb, up to the #2 on Google. That's up several places today. He keeps ranting, Popehat keeps publishing. Going for #1, eh Mr. Matherne? Certainly you're a lot more famous today than you were yesterday, and it'll no doubt get better. Too bad about what you're going to be famous for.

If Matherne actually files, I predict this will ultimately wind up as an article at Lowering The Bar with a title like "Motion Denied On Grounds of Incomprehensibility."

As a Special Bonus Factoid, I also learned a new phrase: murum aries attigit. Taken literally, it means "the ram has touched the wall," but see the link for explanation. It sounds ever so much more dignified than "Game on, a**hole."

The Golden Ratio by Mario Livio (science, math)

The number phi (Greek Φ, pronounced fee) has been known for millennia  Aside from it's direct use in mathematics, it is often called the golden ratio’ that defines the most perfect esthetic proportions. That might sound pretty breathless (and it is), but it's also pretty accurate. In The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World's Most Astonishing Number Mario Livio addresses both the mathematical and esthetic features of phi, exploding historical myths and finding it in a number of less-than-obvious places. It's a fine little book and a very pleasant excursion after the disappointment of Kline's Mathematics and the Loss of Certainty.

This is a book about a number and about mathematics, but it is not a mathematics text. Livio writes for a  general reader, never getting into more mathematics or geometry than you got in high school (or at least, what you should have gotten in high school). His explanations are simple and clear, with good references for those who wish to go further into the topic. I could wish for a few more illustrations and appendices, but their lack didn't keep me from enjoying or finishing the book.

It's difficult to talk about the book without talking about the number, and that's to Livio's credit. He writes clearly enough that you focus on the topic rather than struggling to understand. Phi is the star, and it's place in history and mathematics is what you remember coming out of the book. Phi is found in  the logarithmic spiral and the chambered nautilus, in ferns and the Fibonacci sequence, in the corners of the dodecahedron and in the placement of branches on trees. Its use is as ancient as the early Greeks and as recent as Penrose tilings, with both beauty and math seen at every step of the way. In many ways Livio combines the two, with beauty in the math and mathematics in the beauty.

This was almost everything I want in a math or science book. It made me think, it educated me on both the science and the history, and it made me want to find more on this and similar topics. Recommended for both laymen and professionals.