Like I mentioned in my “What I’m About to Read” post a while back, I’m a big fan of the Oz series. The children’s books, not the HBO prison drama. L. Frank Baum’s fantasyland is one of the most incredible, imaginative worlds ever developed in fiction, and has been quite an inspiration for me with a project I’m working on. (I’ll give you a hint – look at the name of this website. It’s something that’s coming.) Baum wrote 14 novels in the series, beginning with The Wizard of Oz and ending with Glinda of Oz, plus one book of short stories. (The 15th book in the series, The Royal Book of Oz, is credited to him, but it was actually written by Ruth Plumbly Thompson — and thanks to Eric Shanower for correcting me on this point!) After his death, Thompson continued writing books, then series illustrator John R. Neill took over for a few volumes, then others stepped in to create new Oz tales, and nobody has ever stopped. While the new books have never achieved the popularity of the original – and certainly not the popularity of the Judy Garland movie – many of them have been well worth the read.
Such as the book I finished just a day or two ago, the 1999 novel Paradox in Oz by Edward Einhorn, with illustrations by Eric Shanower. One of the conceits of the Oz books is that, in the land of Oz, no one ever ages and no one ever dies. So imagine the shock of Princess Ozma when people start coming to her one day with wrinkles, back pains, and a single gray hair marring the luxurious green beard of her guardsman, Omby Amby. Glinda the Good Witch checks her magic book, which records everything that happens anywhere in the world, and tracks the source of Oz’s anti-aging enchantment to a mysterious character called “The Man That Lives Backwards.” In order to determine how Oz was enchanted in the first place and – hopefully – restore the enchantment, Ozma pairs up with Tempus the Parrot-Ox, a creature who specializes in doing the impossible. What follows is a marvelous trip through time, going to the very origins of Oz itself, showing a decidedly dark version of what Oz could have been, and pitting Ozma against the greatest danger to her world.
Einhorn does something really great with this story: he gives it actual conflict. As much as I love Baum, many of the original Oz books (and many of the books afterwards) lack any real sense of danger. It seems that after Dorothy melted the Wicked Witch of the West, the rest of the Oz villains lost their teeth (the Nome King being the one delightful exception). Baum’s world was so all-encompassingly good you never really felt the heroes were in peril, and that made some of the later books somewhat bland. Einhorn gives Ozma an actual problem and several real villainous characters, and he manages to do so without sacrificing the basic goodness of the world that Baum created. The new additions to the Oz mythos, primarily the Parrot-Ox, are most certainly the sort of characters that Baum himself would have created in the modern era, drawing on the tropes of science fiction and comic book storytelling the way Baum himself drew from fairy tales.
Shanower’s artwork, like Einhorn’s text, feels like a modernized take on the classics. He uses a style that’s very evocative of the work of John R. Neill, but he also displays a great deal of versatility. There’s a magnificent two-page spread in which Ozma begins falling through multiple possible versions of Oz, and Shanower manages to mimic virtually every adaptation of the work from movies, animation, comic books and all other media on a single page. It’s an incredibly fun glimpse into this world.
My quest to read all the Oz books I can find continues, but as I go through it, I’ll definitely give added weight to Einhorn’s work. This is the second Oz book of his that I’ve read, the first being The Living House of Oz. Although I haven’t read as many non-Baum Oz books as I’d like, for my money he captures the heart and spirit of Oz in a way that few other writers outside of Baum’s personal circle have ever been able to achieve.