Book Review: “A Lion Among Men” by Gregory Maguire

Accio Book!

The third book of The Wicked Years focuses on Brrr, the cowardly lion who was with Dorothy when she melted Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. Now on an errand for the witch’s brother, who has become the Emperor-Apostle of Oz, Brrr visits the Mauntery of St. Glinda on the eve of a battle between the Emerald City army and the secessionist Munchkins. His mission is to interview the crone, and possibly oracle, known as Yackle, and find out why her history connects with that of the late Elphaba. But before he can prise Yackle’s story out of her, he must give up his own.

It’s the third of four volumes of a grown-up reimagining of the Oz series, with sexual content, political themes, and an outlook on life and life stories that embraces disappointment, disillusionment, and the tendency of true stories to lack the simple lines and tidy endings of fairy tales. It is, in summary, a textbook case of an Adult Content Advisory.

Brrr doesn’t know much about his origins except that he has never truly belonged anywhere, he has a gift for botching things, and his reputation for cowardice and betrayal is at least partly deserved. Yackle, meanwhile, seems to have come into existence as an old lady, and in spite of all the magical contributions she has made to the fates Elphaba and her relatives, she does not really understand what she is doing. She can’t even seem to die, which is what she most wants to do by the time Brrr finds her.

The two odd characters circle each other, psychologically speaking, and size each other up. Yackle hopes that Brrr may prove worthy of a trust that may enable her finally to move on. Brrr hopes to learn from her what happened to a mysterious book of magic called the Grimmerie, which the Emperor Shell wants above all things. The real question ends up being what Brrr will do with the book if he gets hold of it.

Meanwhile, loose ends of the story of Liir, the witch’s son, and his green daughter are still dangling, as are the fate of his half-sister Nore, the mission of the mysterious Clock of the Time Dragon, and the perilous pivot point on which the fate of Oz totters as two armies converge on the abbey. The journey through memory, the exploration of guilt and failure and solitude, the peril of war and oppression, and the strange magical powers of both book and clock combine to make this a funny, moving, thought-provoking, immersive, world-building extravaganza of a book, with plenty of character tension and plot momentum to keep readers hooked to the end and into the succeeding book.

For the first two installments in this series, see Wicked and Son of a Witch. For the conclusion of the series, see Out of Oz. And for an excellent listening experience, listen to the audio-book version of this book read by John McDonough.

Gregory Maguire’s website
Recommended Ages: 14+