Why do the last books in so many long-running fantasy series feature so much aimless wandering? Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, The Amber Spyglass, The Last Battle, hell, even The Return Of The King: All feature their fair share of scenes where the protagonists slog forward amid plenty of “I can’t go on!” “You must go on!” dialogue.
Out Of Oz, the conclusion to Gregory Maguire’s Wicked Years—the four-book series that started with the musical-inspiring 1995 novel Wicked—seems particularly egregious in this regard. For more than half the book, the novel’s central characters wander the land of Oz, not particularly concerned with where they’re headed. Interesting events that are occurring several hundred miles away are brought up, but no one is able to provide much news about what’s actually going on. It’s all part of Maguire’s larger points about generational struggle and the ways the effects of warfare ripple out to touch people hundreds far away, but it’s a frustrating way to spend 300 pages.
On the other hand, the structure lets Maguire bring out every single still-living character from his saga for a curtain call; some join up with the book’s central protagonist—Rain, granddaughter of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch Of The West—for significant portions of the narrative. Glinda, Brrr, Liir, and other fan favorites pop up for extensive periods, and some characters who might have seemed gone from the narrative forever make brief cameos as well. Maguire has cultivated a wide fan base with these bestselling novels, and this final chapter is more satisfying than the middle two books, simply by virtue of bringing everybody back for one last adventure.
And the parts of the book not dominated by aimless wandering are almost at the level of Wicked, the excellent series-launcher. Sure, it takes until well into the book’s final quarter for Rain to formulate any sort of plan, and yes, Maguire remains more interested in florid prose and dime-store philosophy than anything else, but he’s really good at those things. It helps that Rain is a great protagonist, particularly once she hits her teen years and starts to accept that she can’t run from her destiny forever. Maguire’s sense of humor comes out in several choice places, and his supporting cast is filled with genuinely funny characters who prop up the narrative even at its weakest. (The best are a dwarf named Mr. Boss and a Munchkin named Little Daffy, who have an unlikely and combative marriage, and spend much of the book doing nothing of consequence but fighting.)
Maguire also still has a talent for dropping little Ozian Easter eggs for fans of L. Frank Baum’s original books, like a familiar metal man who pops up in a junk shop. He plays with one of the most unusual parts of the original Oz books when readers learn the identity of one character’s boyfriend. And in Out Of Oz, he finally lets Dorothy Gale take center stage briefly, and his interpretation of Baum’s heroine is bold and brassy enough to perfectly suggest the character from the original books, a particular success in a book so focused on revisionism. Out Of Oz is deeply flawed—it’s hard not to be when the most active character for many pages is a book—but Maguire’s writing is beautiful, and the characters are often satisfying enough to make their wanderings less painful to bear.