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"Son of a Witch" by Gregory Maguire; ReganBooks ($26.95)
Turning well-known fairy tales on their heads has become the signature of Gregory Maguire, whose "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West" (1995), propelled him to fame.
That book intriguingly imagined the back story of the green-skinned witch who famously melted in L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" and the subsequent Judy Garland movie. An allegory with correlations to such nefarious eras as Nazi Germany and Watergate-era America, Maguire's book asked - as does "good" Glinda in the Broadway hit "Wicked" - "Are people born wicked? Or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?"
A big part of what made "Wicked" thrilling to read - aside from Maguire's elaborately descriptive yet seemingly effortless storytelling - was previous knowledge of the source story. Knowing Elphaba (the name Maguire gave the witch, compiled from the sounds of the three initials in Baum's name) is doomed, but not knowing how Maguire will engineer her demise is the mystery that compels readers to keep turning pages. (Maguire has also tinkered with other fairy-tale familiarity, in "Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister", which turned "Cinderella" inside out; ditto with "Mirror Mirror" and the Snow White myth.)
But in "Son of a Witch," the only foreknowledge readers have comes directly from "Wicked." If they haven't read that book, "Son's" plot will be tough to follow. One of the critical hallmarks of a successful sequel is its ability to stand on its own. "Son" doesn't.
In the novel "Wicked" (the musical deviated considerably from Maguire's tale), Elphaba had spent years recovering from political misalliances in the Emerald City. When she arrived at the castle where she would eventually die, she brought along a boy named Liir - presumably the child she bore after an affair with her former college friend Fiyero. But she cared more about her pets, particularly her precious snow monkey Chistery, than the child.
In "Son of a Witch," the frail Liir is found near that castle after the death of Elphaba. He is taken to the Cloister of Saint Glinda and nursed back to life by a mysterious mute named Candle. Even one of Dorothy's Yellow Brick Roadies figures in the mix. With the strength Liir gains from his mother's cape and broom handle, he eventually discovers his own magical abilities, joins the military and gradually fosters his own rage against the system. As this story unfolds, "Son" occasionally has absorbing sections in which Maguire's prose sparkles; but there are also weak spots. The second of "Son's" three sections, which chronicles Liir's tenure in the military, is particularly plodding.
Also lacking is the depth of psychological scrutiny that lent pathos to Elphaba, not to mention the political intrigue that made "Wicked" a commentary on the vast gray space bridging real-life good and evil.
However, the ending is killer. A new character emerges who shares a prominent characteristic with Elphaba. It could be a set-up for another sequel, but it also rings true as a thought-provoking comment on the cyclical nature of life.
(c) 2005, Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.