Another Yellow Brick Road: Oz Reimagined by John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen

Like so many of us, I grew up with the Oz books. I was lucky: not only did I have access to the first fourteen of the series, those written by L. Frank Baum himself and thusly considered wholly canonical, I also encountered a fair number of the subsequent books, those making up the rest of the “Famous Forty.” From the elegant reproductions of the first fourteen, as released by Rand McNally in the early 1970s, to the colorful paperback releases of the sequels put out by Del Rey in the 1980s, and including a fair number of other editions picked up over time, I’ve read most, if not all, of the available and mostly canonical, installments. I still remember fondly the times I went to visit one set of relatives, and discovered much older versions of the books in their mindbogglingly expansive library. (I still dream of someday “liberating” those editions….)

When my esteemed and knowledgeable colleague Mari Ness undertook the epic task of rereading the Famous Forty, I followed her progress with great interest, rediscovering so much of what I’d forgotten, seeing with new eyes what I’d either overlooked or missed as a child. What I took away from that series of posts is that Oz is not one singular vision, it’s a wide array of experiences seen through a specific lens. Oz is a place where magic infuses every corner, where talking animals roam, where people never age, where money is (mostly) unheard of, where lunchboxes grow on trees. It’s an escape from the real world, and yet a necessary contrast to our mundane existences. Oz just…is.

When I heard that John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen had put together an anthology of original Oz-inspired fiction, my first reaction was seething jealousy, followed by thoughts of swearing revenge. How dare they overlook my genius? Those fools, they’d pay! Oh yes, they’ll all pay! So okay, my second reaction was to immediately lay hands on a copy. It helped that Doug and I go way back to the days of Realms of Fantasy, and he was happy to make sure I got a review copy in exchange for sparing his life. (I exaggerate. A little.) The results were… interesting. I hope you’ll allow me to address the fifteen stories as best I can, before I sum it all up.

“The Great Zeppelin Heist,” by Rae Carson and C.C. Finlay acts as a prequel to the books, starring the Wizard as he attempts to tame the land of Oz through logic and progress. Their portrayal of the Wizard as an earnest-yet-oblivious con man, a male chauvinist and something of a jerk, seems almost fitting for the humbug who will someday rule the Emerald City.

“Emeralds to Emeralds, Dust to Dust,” by Seanan McGuire, is the first story to embrace a more mature view of the setting, imbuing it with a grim, noir sensibility. In it, a grown Dorothy acts as an unwilling, bitter agent for Ozma, investigating a murder in the ghettos of the Emerald City. Intrigue and betrayal, jealousy and subterfuge go hand-in-hand with this darkly intriguing tale.

Theodora Goss gives us “Lost Girls of Oz,” in which a plucky girl reporter goes undercover to investigate a rash of missing young women. All roads lead to Oz, and a surprising series of revelations. And while the actual motives the Ozites have for brining so many girls to their country may seem at odds with the spirit of the land, it’s actually quite appropriate in a strange way. After all, Oz has always been something of a refuge for the dreamers and wanderers and outcasts and idealists. It’s a strong story, well-suited for the anthology’s mission.

Tad Williams turns in something that’s kind of an Oz story, kind of not, in “The Boy Detective of Oz: An Otherland Story.” Strange things are afoot in the Oz simulation. Who killed the Soldier with the Green Whiskers? While this acts as a continuation of Williams’ Otherland saga, it draws upon various bits of Oz lore to tell a story fairly faithful to the spirit, if not the reality.

“Dorothy Dreams,” by Simon R. Green, is one of the shortest pieces. In it, he ties the origins and meaning of Oz in with a number of other children’s classics. For the normally over-the-top Green, it’s remarkably understated and profound.

“Dead Blue,” by David Farland, is another short piece, reimagining the characters of Oz in a science fiction environment: Tin Man as a cyborg, the Wicked Witch as a technomage, and so on. There’s a distinct element of sadness and pain present in this story, rejecting the idea of Oz as a place that heals all wounds and fills all needs.

Robin Wasserman goes the route of Sucker Punch in “One Flew Over the Rainbow,” which sees the iconic characters of Oz as residents of a mental institution, from Tin-Girl the cutter to Crow the mentally unstable to Dorothy, who teaches them how to defy the system. Again, it’s a painful and provocative vision, one which seems to call back to the much-maligned 1985 Return To Oz.

Ken Liu proves that Oz is universal, in “The Veiled Shanghai,” which sets Dorothy’s classic journey in 1919 Shanghai against the May Fourth Movement. While many of the characters and trappings have been altered to be more culturally relevant, the underlying structure remains the same, making this a more faithful reimagining than some of the other stories.

“Beyond the Naked Eye,” by Rachel Swirsky, reinterprets the journey through the guise of a reality show, where the winning contestant gets a boon from the Wizard. Little do they know there’s a deeper game at work, with revolution waiting in the wings.

Kat Howard’s “A Tornado of Dorothies” puts forward the theory that there must always be a Dorothy, and a Witch, and so on. When another Dorothy comes to Oz, will she be the one to break the never-ending cycle and find a new place in the world? A haunting, thought-provoking story.

“Blown Away,” by Jane Yolen, is told from the viewpoint of one of the farmhands. While it’s one of the few to have almost no magic at all, it embodies the spirit of Oz, which is the ability to escape from the humdrum world and find a new life for yourself…and still occasionally return home. This Dorothy, who vanishes after a tornado, only to reappear years later as a worldly, accomplished circus performer, is almost fey, alien in her newfound ways.

Dale Bailey also uses an unexpected narrator, a Munchkin worker, to explore the seedy underbelly of the Wizard’s reign, in “City So Bright.” His view of the Emerald City as a place ruined by modernity and progress, made corrupt by technology and the Industrial Revolution, is surprisingly bleak.

Orson Scott Card’s “Off to See the Emperor” stars a young Frank Joslyn Baum, son of L. Frank Baum, as he engages on a bizarre adventure, one which contains the seeds of Oz’s genesis.

However, “A Meeting In Oz,” by Jeffrey Ford, takes things one step further, as Dorothy’s last return to Oz is filled with tragedy, dark revelations, and despair. Both she and Oz have fallen on very hard times since their last parting, and it shows. While it could be taken as a metaphor for how growing up inevitably takes its toll on our childhood fantasies and dreams, it’s a surprisingly downbeat story.

However, Jonathan Maberry redeems the anthology with his brilliantly whimsical “The Cobbler of Oz,” in which a Winged Monkey who can’t fly is given magical shoes, meets a dragon, and plays a tiny, yet pivotal role in Oz history. In spirit and tone, whimsy and depth, this is the story I’d vote most likely to fit into the Oz canon and Baumian spirit. This isn’t to say that other stories don’t comes close, but Maberry’s is quite possibly the one which speaks to me as most traditionally appropriate.

Fifteen stories, all inspired by the same concept but going in radically different directions. Some upbeat, some downbeat, some taking the story into other genres altogether. Obviously, some of the stories are closer to the spirit and feel of Oz than others; several deviated so far from the source as to be almost unrecognizable or alienating.

It’s interesting to see how many people, when asked to reimagine the Wizard of Oz, take it in darker directions, whether it’s Bailey’s urban nightmare, McGuire’s noirish leanings, Ford’s post-apocalyptic blight, or Wasserman’s mental institution. Given that the original Oz, for all its assorted dangers and hazards and random threats, still felt like a “good” place, it’s telling that authors strip away the safety to reveal something unsettling and dangerous. Is it that we can’t have nice things, or do we just read vastly different things into the remarkably complex source material? (Here, I wish to point out that John Joseph Adams has conducted brief interviews with each of the authors. I have not read them, so as not to let their answers influence my initial thoughts on their stories.)

Now, for all the darkness, there are plenty of stories that exude optimism, cheer, happiness, and rainbow endings, and they’re just as valid. Goss, Williams, and Maberry definitely fall into that category.

Ultimately, I’d have to say that the one thing each and every story contains is a measure of complexity that might seem surprising until you take a long, hard look at the original Wizard of Oz. Do that, and see that it’s not exactly the straight-forward children’s book that one might assume, and you’ll better appreciate the magnificence of this anthology. Some stories may succeed more than others, but in the end, they all pay homage to Oz. 113 years after its initial publication, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz still inspires. Oz Reimagined is, admittedly, a more adult take on the source material, building on a century of sequels, spinoffs, reimaginings and illegitimate literary offspring, but it’s a heck of a read. If The Wizard of Oz is a book for children, Oz Reimagined is the book for when children grow up.

You can read Gregory Maguire’s introduction to the anthology here.

Oz Reimagined is published by 47North. It is available now.

Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Roanoke, VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who occasionally steals whatever he’s reading. He is the editor of the recently-released anthology, Scheherazade’s Façade. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.


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