What do you do when you need to write yet another book about a magical fairyland where everyone has already gotten a happy ending?
Take your characters to another country, of course.
Ozma of Oz represents a radical departure and new direction for the Oz series. Despite the title, it is an Oz book in name only. Most of the book is set outside Oz, in the neighboring lands of Ev and the domains of the Nome King. The final return to Oz has a distinctly anticlimatic tone to it. And despite its title, the book is not really about Ozma either. Depending upon how you read it, the heroine is either Dorothy or Billina the Yellow Hen or both. The move gave Baum the freedom he needed for a new plot, while allowing him to continue featuring beloved characters like the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, guaranteeing book sales while opening up dramatic opportunities.
Ozma of Oz begins with a violent storm and moves swiftly through a fast paced quest to save the royal family of Ev from Roquat the Nome King, who has turned them into ornaments for his opulent yet cold palace. (He regards this as an act of kindness, since the family had been sold to him as slaves, and the alternative was to have them worked to near death in his mines.) Baum peppers the text with his now usual assortment of strange characters: the Wheelers, who have wheels instead of hands and feet; the lovely yet selfish Princess Langwidere, with her 30 beautiful heads and a multitude of mirrors; and the Hungry Tiger, saved by his conscience from eating fat babies.
The book also contains one of the earliest depictions of robots in English literature, the mechanical man Tik-Tok, who must have his brains, speech and action wound up daily in order for him to function. When he winds down, he becomes nothing more than a copper statue. Interestingly, given the later disdain for technology in Baum’s books, Tik-Tok is presented as thoroughly benign, often acting as a neutral moral voice. At the same time, while accepting his moral judgments, other characters immediately deem Tik-Tok as inferior because he is not alive. He agrees with this verdict.
This is also our first glimpse of Ozma as a ruler in action, and, well…it’s not overly reassuring. Ozma decides to enter and invade two neighboring countries without doing her basic due diligence (sound familiar?): she does not know the true story behind the imprisonment of the royal family; she has no idea how vast the Nome King’s armies are, and has no idea how to enter his realms. The heartless Tik-tok not only needs to correct her moral misjudgments, but also advise her on the correct way to approach of fellow monarch. (You’re a queen, girl. You should start to know these things.) And she ends all this by falling for the Nome King’s trap and nearly dooming herself and her friends to an eternity as Nome ornaments.
Luckily, she’s saved by a chicken. Really.
Speaking of the chicken—the practical, clucking, clever Billina is really one of Baum’s best creations, partly because she is so clearly a chicken, partly because she is rarely distracted by inconsequentials, partly because she never hesitates to stand up for herself and her right to lay certified fresh morning eggs when and where she needs to.
The book is not without its flaws—the first part depends just a leeeeettle too much on coincidence, and the second part marks the unfortunate introduction of the Magic Belt, which would later be used as an increasingly annoying deux ex machina plot device. And the introduction of Dorothy’s terrible grammar and little girl talk, after her grammatically correct chatter in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, is regrettable. But after all, magical things, including Magic Belts, are supposed to happen in fairy tale lands, and Billina’s triumph over the Nome King, successful precisely because she obeys her inner chicken, is one of the most satisfying of any Oz book.
Alas, none of Mari Ness’ belts can work magic, although that hasn’t stopped her from trying. She lives in central Florida with two cats who would use the Magic Belt to conjure tuna.