(Originally posted in 2011 via Goodreads)
Son of a Witch
by Gregory Maguire
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West was a fantastic novel. It had a little bit of analysis and advice on virtually every aspect of human (and non-human) life. It touched on areas of religion, politics, and almost every kind of relationship, from parents and children to lovers, scorned and otherwise. Every sentence seemed related to every other sentence, there was a thread binding all of the themes and characters together; in short: Wicked succeeded in portraying a more realistic version of life in Oz. It also did a very good job of turning the sugary Baum characters into real people with a range of emotions and a lot of dirt under their fingernails, so to speak.
Maguire’s well-intentioned sequel, Son of a Witch, is by no means a “bad” book. That title is reserved for Karen Miller’s fantasy, and Stephenie Meyer’s vampire novels. Son of a Witch does, however, feel devoid of… well, much of anything. The protagonist, Liir, is a completely overlooked, lonely, and very somber person wandering through a strange and unfeeling world after the death of the Witch, who may or may not have been his mother, as was stated in the first book. He begins on a quest to find Nor, a little girl with whom he grew up, and his possible half-sister. This story is very much about Liir’s journey to become a stronger and more mature person, though we’re left wondering whether he really makes any grand strides in that journey.
Son of a Witch is also peppered with the same somewhat embittered analysis of life within Oz that permeated Wicked, but the observations on religion, human behavior, and the like are not quite as moving, and Maguire is taken to rambling several times in the novel, sometimes eliciting an aggrieved but patient sigh from this reader in the attempt to get to some actual plot development. Characters come and go from chapter to chapter, sometimes never to be seen again. It seems as though Maguire tried very hard to do the same things he did with Wicked: showing the different human attributes different people brought into Elphaba’s life, but doing that with Liir. It’s just not as interesting, though. Luckily the novel is not terribly long, because I found myself getting a little impatient several times during the book.
In Wicked, Oz was filled with characters that had a realistic, though often negative, view of the world, but that’s been taken to the extreme in this novel: it seems as though every single character is a bitter nymphomaniac beneath the surface, out to exact some revenge on the world. Then there is the obvious absence of Elphaba: Maguire paints the world of Oz as being completely empty without her. Exactly how notorious she was was never explained in the first novel, and we’re still wondering exactly what the citizens of Oz thought of her in the sequel.
I want to say that this book was thought-provoking and emotionally evocative. It did a little of the former and a little more of the latter. Liir spends a lot of time mulling on… well, just about everything. He never seems to come to any conclusions though: by the end of the book, Liir seems just as confused about the world as he was in the beginning, he just accepts it easier.
There’s also simply not a lot of action. The ending was incredibly anticlimactic. The most exciting thing that happens is that Liir and a huge flock of birds fly by the emerald city in the shape of Elphaba, for no real apparent reason. I felt the same about the flight of the Conference of Birds as I did about Nessarose’s shoes in the first book: what is the point, really? Elphaba was intent on having the shoes, and her personal reasons for claiming them I understood perfectly, but the idea that the Wizard could somehow use the shoes to exact control over Munchkinland made no sense whatsoever.
In the penultimate scene of the book, Liir uses Candle’s (possibly magical) ability to play her instrument to somehow bring life from the scraped faces of dragon victims and reverse the spell placed upon the Princess Nastoya. However, this happens completely inexplicably; Liir is just struck with the idea and runs with it. Are we supposed to believe this is some innate knack at sorcery? Even Elphaba did remarkable things by ACCIDENT. Liir calculated what he was doing with the faces and Candle’s domingon. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense.
The one part of this novel I really enjoyed was Liir’s relationship with Trism. While things begin on a pretty romantic note with Candle, she becomes distant and bitchy pretty quickly, and by the end of the book doesn’t seem to want to have anything to do with Liir. Liir is even supposed to have impregnated Candle without having any memory of it! In Wicked, Elphaba inexplicably gave birth to a child without having any memory of the event, and now in the sequel, Liir loses his virginity with no memory of the event! That’s pretty ridiculous. Liir couldn’t well have had sex with Candle when he was in a coma, and I find it hard to believe he just mysteriously blacked out the night he may or may not have impregnated her.
But as I was saying, the relationship with Trism is perhaps the only thing in the book I was rooting for. The two work well together, they share the same ideas, they communicate easily, and they have a lot of passion for each other. Also I might be a little inclined toward the gay relationship because of all the sexy man-love, but that’s beside the point: the two of them genuinely seem to care for one another. Of course things begin in a pretty rocky fashion when Trism attempts to kill Liir, but he breaks down in the act and immediately surrenders to his emotions and becomes a friend and lover to Liir. Liir even seems to feel more passionately for Trism than he does Candle.
Let’s talk about the ending. It left me extremely dissatisfied. Liir returns to Apple Press farm, only to find it deserted, and he finds the seemingly dead body of Candle’s baby wrapped in Elphaba’s cloak in the barn. Thinking it to be dead, he takes it in his arms and slowly begins to realize that it’s not a corpse, but a live baby. Liir draws his own conclusions about where Candle went and why, but he has absolutely no evidence to support it, and we’re left knowing NOTHING about the whereabouts of Candle, Trism, or even the Goose who was staying at the farm. And then of course we have the final line of the book, that the baby “cleaned up green.” The child has green skin, and that is pretty much the proof that Elphaba was in fact Liir’s mother, that the broom responds to Liir because of a natural aptitude at magic, and the baby is Liir’s daughter (despite him not remembering the CONCEPTION).
There’s also the matter of Liir’s quest to find Nor, which is all but abandoned by the end of the book. The message “Elphaba lives!” scrawled on a wall in the Emerald City is revelead to have been written by Nor, and Maguire attempts to make it a moment of triumphant epiphany, but it’s not, and by the end of the book Liir doesn’t seem very concerned with finding Nor anymore, and doesn’t seem to have any idea of where to go with his life. It doesn’t end on a high note or a low note, it ends right where it begins: in a state of confusion. This may have been done on purpose as a reflection of Liir’s personality, but it’s an awfully bleak way to end the book.
This book is definitely not on par with Wicked, but it’s worth reading if you enjoy the characters. It’s still somewhat enjoyable, even though every character in the novel seems to be in possession of some embittered wisdom about the world, there is almost no climax, and the few moments of happiness Liir experiences are fleeting and don’t seem to offer much hope of his ever having some long-term joy in his life. Gregory Maguire is a good author, and clearly perceptive about human nature, but Son of a Witch is pretty lacking in excitement or development of characters and plot beyond a few fleeting scenes of romance.