Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Yellow Brick Road is a Twisty One... with Potholes, Bumps, & Thrill-Hills


As a general rule, I’m not big on grab bags. Those mystery collections of whatevers, thrown in a bag or box for one low price, have just never panned out for me. (Like, if I really needed four identical XXS aqua t-shirts decorated with a wolf scene and one XXXL maroon tee emblazoned with a box of cartoon french fries, all for only $7.95, I’d be set, but... yeah, not so much.) 

That thinking carries over to my attitude toward most anthologies, too. How many times have I shelled out a decent chunk of change for a tome of short stories penned by an assortment of authors... only to really like only one, or maybe two, of them? (More times than I care to admit, actually.)

Still, sometimes it can’t be helped; either that’s the only way to read a special one-off by a favorite author, or else the whole thing just sounds like a can’t-miss, must-have... as in the case of Oz Reimagined (edited by John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen), a compilation of fifteen stories from the minds of several modern fantasy authors (most of whom I wasn’t that familiar with), each taking his or her turn adding to L. Frank Baum’s lore.


Oz Reimagined is a mixed bag, to be sure, but--much like those grab bags mentioned earlier--it’s as full of moderately-interesting tales as it is utter schlock. Fortunately, though, there are also a few diamonds (hmm, make that emeralds, since this is Oz we’re talking about) thrown in for good measure.

Things get off to a great start with “The Great Zeppelin Heist of Oz”, depicting Oscar-the-evil-Wizard-of-Oz’s arrival in the Emerald City and subsequent rise to power. Entertaining, amusing, and clever, this is how a short story should be done.

Seanan McGuire’s entry, “Emerald to Emerald, Dust to Dust”, is quite enjoyable, as well.  Dorothy is all grown up, a take-no-crap Wicked Witch of the West in a considerably-more-grimly-urban Oz than Baum originally created. (She’s a lesbian, to boot, which--while I love the idea of that--is also my one issue with the story; the mere fact that she’s gay is repeated, a lot, for no apparent reason.) Still, overall a really well-done story, and one that could easily be expanded into a whole book.

“Lost Girls of Oz” holds up fine as a complete short story, giving us an eager young journalist who sets out on her own to investigate the disappearances of several young, abused girls... who’ve been rescued/spirited away to join Ozma’s Army in Oz. It’s a girl-power story, pure and simple, and interesting as such.

Things go downhill with “The Boy Detective of Oz”, in which both the land of Oz and the hero of the story--a young man named Orlando--are virtual entities inside a computer game. (I’m guessing this will appeal to gamers more than it did to me.) A let-down.

Unfortunately, the downward spiral continues... “Dorothy Dreams” involves a Dorothy who dreams she’s a very old invalid in a nursing home. It changes key elements from Baum’s books and is just plain bad. Then, in “Dead Blue”, Dorothy accesses memories from the Cloud so that she can kill the Wicked Witch of the West and take over her rule. (Or something like that. Really, really disliked this one.)

Definitely the award for most-disturbing/depressing entry, though, goes to “One Flew Over the Rainbow”, which puts troubled “Crow”, even-more-troubled “Tin-Girl”, slow “Roar, and a punk Dorothy together in a mental institution, run by (wait for it) the “Wicked Bitch of the West (Wing)”. Not content leaving it at that, the author throws in scenes of violence, self-mutilation, and rape. This one left me feeling deeply sad and more than a little empty by the end.

Fortunately, things improve--a lot--with “The Veiled Shanghai”, a clever tale of young, Chinese Dorothy Ghee, who gets swept away to an alternate Shanghai during the protests of 1919, where she (and the companions she picks up along the way) must seek out the politically-exiled Wizard in hopes of overthrowing the Wicked Warlord of the West, Emperor Yuan Shikai, and returning power to the people (as well as herself to her own Shanghai). Fascinating and real historical setting make this one a winner.

Also immensely entertaining is “Beyond the Naked Eye”, in which Dorothy and friends are the final contestants in a “Hunger Games”-style reality show, while a small group of dissidents work behind the scenes to oust the evil Wizard who created the show. (The fact that the story revolves around the thoughts and actions of a jeweler, rather than any of the characters we know, is very cool.) One of my favorites in the collection.

“A Tornado of Dorothys” is easily forgettable (though not entirely awful); Oz isn’t just a moment in time, but a place that continues in perpetuity and, as such, requires new Dorothys once the previous ones have served their purpose.

Rather-more memorable is “Blown Away”, which tells the story of Dorothy’s disappearance in the fabled twister from an unusual perspective: that of one of the farmhands. Seeing what happens to the family and friends after she’s gone--then how everyone reacts when she reappears years later--is interesting. 

“City so Bright” is equally unexpected, dealing with none of the characters with whom we’re familiar, but instead with the land of Oz, itself, during the Industrial Revolution. The residents work in abominable conditions--unsafe, barely able to eke out a meager living--and some of them dream about rebelling. (This one is a disappointment only in that it leaves me wanting more, since the abrupt ending doesn’t answer enough questions.)

In “Off to See the Emperor”, a young Dotty makes friends with an even-younger (and very, very smart) little boy, Frank Baum, and takes him along with her on a quest to Oz to find her mother’s stolen wedding ring. This is a wonderful story--definitely true to the spirit of the originals--and quite clever in showing how L. Frank Baum eventually writes his famous stories. Nice.

Back to being disappointed with “A Meeting in Oz”, though, as an embittered, middle-aged Dorothy--whose life on returning to Kansas has been anything but magical--visits Oz one final time, to have it out with the elderly Wizard who did her wrong. The synchronicity between Dorothy’s life and simultaneous events in Oz could have been interesting, but overall this story just doesn’t satisfy. Meh.
   
And then, there’s the final entry in the anthology... the one that makes slogging my way through the lesser--and, in some cases, the truly dreadful--ones tolerable. In “The Cobbler of Oz”, a little winged monkey girl goes to see a cobbler about making her some traveling shoes... and winds up with so much more than she ever could have hoped or dreamed. This one’s an honest-to-goodness fairy tale, from beginning to end... the perfect essence of magic, goodness, hope, sadness, poignancy, and oh, so many wonderful things. My favorite, by far.

It took me a ridiculously-long time to get through Oz Reimagined (partly because I’ve been busy, partly because my focus is sort of not-there, and partly because the bad stories really didn’t make me want to continue), but on the whole, I definitely recommend this to anyone who ever lost her- or himself in the magical world of Oz. There may be some dirt clods and fakes lurking among the gems in Oz Reimagined... but gems there are. :)

2 comments:

  1. I just Kindled this book the other day for the Seánan McGuire story. Seems like a timely read with all the resurgent in Oz. Thanks for reviewing it! I, too, don't much like these types of collections because they tend to be so uneven. But a good author always tempts!

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    1. Think you'll definitely find at least a couple of these well-worth the read... :)

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