Tag Archive | The Wizard of Oz

Christmas haul: two Yuletide gifts, one case of COVID

Other people get candy or toys in their stockings, I got the Omicron variant. Lucky me.

…seriously, though, it was the better kind of COVID experience. No hospital, no breathing problems, no need for any of the expensive treatments that are in short supply. I just canceled holiday plans, spent a few days sleeping a lot, had a friend drop off some chicken soup, and used over-the-counter fever/cough/etc meds to keep the symptoms in check.

Over a week of doing that, my immune system wrestled it steadily down from “thoroughly miserable” to “minor sniffles.”

And if you’ve been hearing people on the news panic about how Booster Shots Wear Off In Weeks And Then Omicron Can Kill Us All…listen, I didn’t even have a booster. Probably could’ve had milder symptoms if I did? But even un-boosted, the two regular Pfizer doses I got back in summer had the virus handled.

(The cat helped, I’m sure. He was very fierce at it. Scared it right off.)

Marshmallow Fluff having a Christmas nap

I had almost wrestled my Marked For Later list down to 5 pages when Yuletide dropped, and now it’s overflowing. At least reading has been easy for most of the COVID recovery period, so I’ve had time to start making a dent again.

I got 2 gifts!

A delightful comedy about Gideon, Harrow, and associates having low-stakes adventures, with Earth artifacts and attempted wrestling:

fifteen percent concentrated power of will (9120 words) by Anonymous
Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: The Locked Tomb Series | Gideon the Ninth Series – Tamsyn Muir
Rating: Not Rated
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Relationships: Gideon Nav/Harrowhark Nonagesimus
Characters: Gideon Nav, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Coronabeth Tridentarius, Judith Deuteros, Camilla Hect
Additional Tags: 5 things (kind of), gideon nav: personal trainer
Summary:

Teaching someone to do a push-up is a love language, when that person is very annoying.

And a treat about Dorothy learning some finer details of Oz magic:

A Long Winter in Oz (14928 words) by Anonymous
Chapters: 5/5
Fandom: Oz – L. Frank Baum
Rating: Teen And Up Audiences
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Relationships: Dorothy Gale & Glinda the Good, Dorothy Gale/Princess Ozma
Characters: Dorothy Gale, Glinda the Good
Additional Tags: Magic, Friendship, Minor Character Death, Implied/Referenced Suicide, no canon character deaths, Romance is a minor element, Worldbuilding
Summary:

Dorothy decides that she ought to learn about magic properly and there just so happens to be a long winter approaching.

Review – Every Heart A Doorway

There was a ton of buzz going around about this book not long ago, and understandably, given the amazing premise. A boarding school to accommodate all those kids who have wandered off into magical fairylands for a while, and help re-acclimatize them to reality? So much possibility.

Guys, it…it really squandered the premise.

After a promising setup, Every Heart A Doorway turns into “a fairly gruesome murder mystery at a school for kids with weird/magic abilities.”

They don’t actually have any scenes of the kids in classes, much less any “here’s how to deal with reality” sequences. It’s insular, almost claustrophobic — the characters never leave the school. There’s no mention of phones, Internet, pop culture, anything connected to the Real World they’re supposed to be reintegrating with. Early on one of the characters mentions looking something up on Google Images before she arrived, but if it wasn’t for that reference, this could’ve taken place any time in the past hundred years.

When the gruesome murders start, there’s no police investigation, no real-world forensics, no “here’s how crimes are solved in a world without magic.” Even the adult authorities at the school, who are In On The Secret, don’t manage the situation at all. It’s just…left to the teenagers to solve on their own, with the residual supernatural talents they have from their fantasylands.

(How great would it have been to have the cops show up with all their mundane nonmagical expectations, and the teachers run interference, and it takes their combined efforts to make progress? Better yet, what if the investigative team included a former student, who could handle both aspects of the case at once?)

Without spoiling any specifics, by the end of the book, it doesn’t support the idea that “learning to be part of the world you’re in” is a worthwhile goal in the first place.

This in spite of the fact that some of the kids’ fairyland-developed coping mechanisms…do not seem healthy. I don’t mean “sensible by fairyland rules but maladapted to our-world rules,” I mean generally unhealthy.

You know what series handles this really well? Star Versus The Forces Of Evil. The heroine in this case is native to magicland, studying abroad on Earth, and the show does a lovely job of exploring the nuances from “Star learns that this behavior isn’t culturally appropriate for Earth” to “Star learns that this behavior is uncool anywhere.”

And I’ve loved fanfic that explores post-magic-journey culture shock. The Pevensies struggling to balance “solving problems by breaking out our mad skills as former-adult Kings and Queens of Narnia” with “not freaking out everyone around us.” Lyra and Pan having to remember to stay close together. Dorothy getting so much cross-cultural experience so young that, after a certain point, she can drop into pretty much any world and have no trouble going with the flow.

The students in Every Heart A Doorway don’t get any “here’s how to codeswitch to Earth-appropriate behaviors” or “wow, you’re interacting with regular Earth culture really well already” or “this isn’t good at all, let’s learn and grow and develop as characters.” They stay in their insulated setting with all the patterns they learned in other worlds going pretty much unexamined.

So much potential material here! So painfully unexplored!

~*~

People were also talking a lot, when the initial buzz was going around, about book’s the asexual protagonist.

Again: cool in theory! In practice, all it seems to mean is that her narration keeps doing unnecessary and shoehorned-in detours about how totally uninterested in sex she is.

The first time it came up was fine. Awkward, but forgivable. The rest, not so much. There’s a scene where she’s having a friendly conversation, and suddenly goes into an internal monologue about how she’s flirting, and this is fun, but she’s totally uninterested in having sex with the people she flirts with. It’s like she’s jumping in to correct an assumption that the reader isn’t making — I hadn’t even realized she was supposed to be flirting in the first place.

The scene that struck me the most is: she’s admiring the beauty of a male classmate, and thinks all the other girls around her must feel the same, “although she was sure she was the only one whose attraction was aesthetic, not romantic.”

First point: the character is not aromantic. (She says so. In those words.) It’s possible to feel romantic attraction in general, and not specifically feel it toward this guy. For her. But…not for literally anyone else?

Second point: why does she think there are no lesbians at this school? Why doesn’t it occur to her that some people are aromantic? Why does she show zero awareness that even straight girls (and bi/pan girls, although I’m not sure she realizes those exist either) don’t have to feel attracted to every boy in existence?

Is she just supposed to be really blinkered and self-centered, as a character flaw? Maybe, but I never felt like the narrative saw her that way.

Is it a “the lady doth protest too much” situation, where she is falling in love with the guy, and is aggressively denying/projecting to avoid facing the idea? Also possible, but has Unfortunate Implications for the way her asexuality is established by repeating “and she totally wasn’t sexually attracted to people, nope, not at all.”

~*~

The book is really weird about gender. Most of the students are girls (a couple hundred of them, to a grand total of 5 boys), and this is explained as a result of socialization and sexism and boys not wandering off as easily without getting noticed.

Which…doesn’t track with the genre it’s supposed to be commenting on. At all.

For every Lucy and Susan, there’s a Peter and Edmund. For every Alice through the looking-glass, there’s a Milo in a phantom tollbooth. Wendy Darling disappeared with both of her brothers in tow, and that’s not even counting Peter and the Lost Boys. Dorothy, Betsy Bobbin, and Trot are balanced out by Button-Bright and Zeb. Lyra had her Will. I could go on.

On top of that, this main group of characters ends up including 2 of the boys (along with maybe 4 girls).

Why establish a mostly-female setting if you’re then going to overrepresent the male characters that dramatically? Why not just have a roughly-gender-balanced school in the first place?

And it manages to wring a heck of a lot of heterosexuality out of this casting. Every major female character mentions having a male love interest in whatever fantasy world she wandered into. One of the boys basically wandered into Halloweentown and had a romance with a skeleton…very specifically a girl skeleton. I already mentioned the ace girl’s weird obliviousness to the possibility of gay people. And the only flirting we see between students is m/f.

The aforementioned super-beautiful boy is trans. Which is nice! And the subject is handled more naturally than the asexuality. Doubly nice.

But in some ways that only makes the broader context weirder. If there’s a setting where nobody is explicitly LGBT, it’s easy to read that as “underneath the veneer of everyone politely ignoring the topic, people are still LGBT at the average rate.”

Here, the author wants to have explicit representation! But it’s like…she made one of her boys trans, and one of her girls ace, and then just…stopped. Without considering the idea of LGBT people existing generally. In background characters. In sidelong references. In the concept of female characters other than the heroine who aren’t into a hot guy.

~*~

At least it was short? I blew through the whole audiobook in a single work day, so the disappointing aspects weren’t dragged out for long.

But seriously, there were a lot of disappointments. And now I’m worried there are people writing better versions of the premise but getting shot down as ripoffs, or getting publishing deals but no hype because all the “what a cool, unusual premise!” posts have been done.

…Does anyone have recs? I’ll also take recs for your favorite culture-shock fics of existing portal-fantasy series. Anything that takes this books’ premise and actually, wholeheartedly, runs with it.

Erin Reads: The Last of the Ozicans

After putting it off long enough, I finally went through the last two of Baum’s Oz books. Both published posthumously, in case this wasn’t sad enough already.

Book 13 is The One With The Even Gayer Birthday Party, and Book 14 is Baum Breaks His Own Record For Unnecessary Cameos.

***

The Magic of Oz opens with a baby supervillain. Munchkin boy Kiki Aru discovers a magic word of transformation, and decides to fly over the Deadly Desert and visit other countries, then come back to Oz and maybe take it over.

(So of course the readers all had to figure out how to stumble through pronouncing “pyrzqxgl.” Wish some of them had thought to go back and distort the audio, so what the listener hears is something they genuinely can’t repeat back.)

Baum sure does have a thing for fantasy young boy protagonists vs. mundane young girl protagonists, huh? On the one side, Dorothy, Dot, Trot, and Betsy; on the other, Ojo, Woot, Inga, and Kiki, plus I’ll throw in Tip, who considers himself male for the bulk of the book in which he’s the focus of the adventure.

Mundane boys: Tot, Button-Bright. Fantasy girls: Ozma, and…is that it? There are Polychrome and Ann Soforth, but they both feel like young adults to me.

Anyway.

Didn’t even plan this: Kiki Aru drops in on exactly the non-Oz countries from my last review. Hiland, Loland, Merryland, Nol, and Ix.

He ends up in Ev, where he tries to crash at an inn for the night, only to realize that — worldbuilding! — Ev uses money, and he doesn’t have any. You’d think he could turn into a bird in order to sleep in a tree, but as a baby supervillain he decides to turn into a bird in order to steal someone else’s coins.

The ex-Nome King just happens to be in the area, and approves. “I like you, young man, and I’ll go to the inn with you if you’ll promise not to eat eggs for supper.”

***

It’s almost Ozma’s birthday again! Look, it was a serviceable plot device the first time around, no reason not to bring it back.

Dorothy is stuck for gift ideas, which is bound to happen when you’ve been living with someone for, what is it, 30 years now? The Scarecrow is providing a straw-themed gift, and the Tin Woodman a tin-themed gift, but Dorothy doesn’t exactly have a theme.

Scraps wrote a song! The title begins “When Ozma Has a Birthday, Everybody’s Sure to Be Gay…” (“I am patched and gay and glary / You’re a sweet and lovely fairy.”)

Toto’s advice:

“Tell me, Toto,” said the girl; “what would Ozma like best for a birthday present?”

The little black dog wagged his tail.

“Your love,” said he. “Ozma wants to be loved more than anything else.”

“But I already love her, Toto!”

“Then tell her you love her twice as much as you ever did before.”

“That wouldn’t be true,” objected Dorothy, “for I’ve always loved her as much as I could, and, really, Toto, I want to give Ozma some PRESENT, ’cause everyone else will give her a present.”

Glinda suggests Dorothy bake Ozma a cake. Then suggests she put something surprising inside the cake. When asked for specific ideas, she says that has to be up to Dorothy. HMMMM.

Everyone ships it, is what I’m saying.

(Her eventual big plan for the surprise: tiny monkeys that do tricks! She decides to ask the Wizard for help, because she has no idea how to (a) hire monkeys, (b) make them tiny, or (c) teach them tricks.)

***

Worldbuilding update: they’ve decided they aren’t sure whether immigrants to Oz are affected by the “can’t be killed” rule, so Dorothy et al are carefully protected.

Trot, Cap’n Bill, and the Glass Cat head out on their own sidequest: to bring Ozma a magic flower that only grows on a secluded island. As with The Scarecrow of Oz, Trot is missing a lot of the personality she had in her own books. Sigh.

I was going to say “at least she gets a quest,” unlike Betsy, whose only adventuring since moving to Oz has been her bit part in Lost Princess — but on second thought, Betsy being a homebody who didn’t care for her first adventure and would rather avoid having more of them is a nice way to distinguish her from Trot and Dorothy. Let the girl have a quiet, uneventful life at the palace for a few more decades. She’s earned it.

About that island: it turns out to be creepily bare (“How funny it is, Cap’n Bill, that nothing else grows here excep’ the Magic Flower”). Turns out it’s because any living creature that sets foot on the island puts down roots.

***

Ruggedo and Kiki Aru take on some chimera forms, fly back to Oz, and land in a Gillikin forest with an animal kingdom.

Kiki Aru provides the transformations — he’s smart enough not to let Ruggedo in on the magic word — while Ruggedo does the planning and the talking. He spins a tale that the people of the Emerald City are plotting to invade the forest and enslave the animals, so clearly they need to attack first and enslave the people instead. Based on hearsay from some creatures they’ve never seen or heard of before. Yep.

The animals are…admirably skeptical. Kiki Aru transforms a couple of them, backing up the “we’re magicians” part of the story, but nothing more.

And this is the point where Dorothy and the Wizard just walk in. Or rather, ride in on the backs of a giant frickin’ lion and tiger, while the transformed Ruggedo is all ::sweats nervously:: in the background.

The Lion introduces himself: “I am called the ‘Cowardly Lion,’ and I am King of all Beasts, the world over.” The response boils down to “I didn’t vote for you.”

Dorothy and the Wizard are just here to hire some monkeys, but baby supervillain Kiki panics and does a rapid round of transformations on them. Plus on Ruggedo — who gets to be a goose, which terrifies him, because what if he lays an egg?

Eventually the Wizard (as a fox) catches up with them, overhears Kiki saying the magic word, and uses it to turn Kiki and Ruggedo into nuts.

***

Honestly, it’s kinda refreshing how fast the invasion subplot peters out. The animals realize the “magicians” were full of it, and immediately drop their halfhearted sense of grudge. A bunch of monkeys even agree to come join them for the party.

The Glass Cat catches up with them to explain what’s happened to Trot and Cap’n Bill, they take a detour to wrap up that subplot too, and everyone goes home for the party.

“You will have noticed that the company at Ozma’s banquet table was somewhat mixed.” Heh.

Character apparent-age update:

When Dorothy and Trot and Betsy Bobbin and Ozma were together, one would think they were all about of an age, and the fairy Ruler no older and no more “grown up” than the other three. She would laugh and romp with them in regular girlish fashion, yet there was an air of quiet dignity about Ozma, even in her merriest moods, that, in a manner, distinguished her from the others. The three girls loved her devotedly, but they were never able to quite forget that Ozma was the Royal Ruler of the wonderful Fairyland of Oz, and by birth belonged to a powerful race.

It isn’t until the last chapter that the Wizard finally remembers about the nuts in his pocket.

I’ve complained about the protagonist-centered morality before, and the ending here might be the most head-desky example on the whole series. Ozma, Dorothy, and the Wizard talk about not knowing how powerful the mystery magicians might be…but unlike with the invading armies from book 6, they’re not facing a concrete threat of overwhelming force. It’s just a guess. And we, the readers, know for a fact that Kiki Aru is just a kid who knows one trick, while the other nut is Ruggedo, nobody they can’t handle.

In spite of this, the characters repeat the “manipulate the attackers into drinking the Water of Oblivion” trick. They recognize Ruggedo, but have no idea who Kiki is, and don’t bother to ask before he takes a drink. So the kid loses his identity…and all memory of the family he left at the beginning of the book. Now they’ll never find out what happened to their son.

Dammit, Baum, magically lobotomizing characters you don’t like is not a happy ending!

—-

Which brings us to Glinda of Oz, another of those books where the title character isn’t the focus, and in fact is only around for half of the story.

It starts as a Dorothy-and-Ozma quest, kicked off when they visit Glinda, read in her Magic Book about a war brewing between two isolated communities, and decide to go intervene.

At Glinda’s place: “Ozma took the arm of her hostess, but Dorothy lagged behind, kissing some of the maids she knew best, talking with others, and making them all feel that she was their friend.” I’ve joked about Ozma’s harem, but whoo boy, Dorothy isn’t doing so bad herself.

Some final retconning: people in Oz can’t die *or* suffer “any great bodily pain.” So even if you get put through the torn-to-pieces-and-scattered-across-the-world horror show, at least it won’t hurt!

***

The warring communities are the Flatheads, who have no room for brains in their heads but compensate by carrying some around in cans, and the Skeezers, who live on a sinkable island in a lake.

Both of them have fairly terrible, selfish, dictatorial rulers…but both of them make the point that they’ve never heard of Ozma, didn’t know their lands had been declared within the borders of a country called Oz, and so why should they acknowledge her as their ruler the moment she shows up on their doorstep?

Oh, goody, marriage-is-awful jokes:

“I’m sorry we couldn’t have roast pig,” said the [Supreme Dictator of the Flatheads], “but as the only pig we have is made of gold, we can’t eat her. Also the Golden Pig happens to be my wife, and even were she not gold I am sure she would be too tough to eat.”

The Skeezers’ island sinks while Dorothy and Ozma are on it, and the ruler gets turned into a swan before she can bring it back up, so they’re stuck for a while. Baum indulges in some pretty description of the undersea environment. Reminds me of The Sea Fairies.

A bunch of reviews claim this is one of the darker Oz books. It’s really not! Remember the first book, where Dorothy and her companions went through multiple fights to the death, and for a while Dorothy was in forced servitude to the Wicked Witch and spent her nights crying alone in the dark? Now here, Dorothy is imprisoned in a place with gorgeous scenery, the company of her best friend, and total confidence they’ll get rescued sooner or later. Her biggest fear is getting bored while they wait.

***

Glinda resurfaces (hah!) in chapter 13 of 24. She sinks a model island in a pond near her home, for the purpose of testing various island-raising magics.

I was just thinking how comparatively nice it was to have a stripped-down party, just Dorothy and Ozma…and then in chapter 15 it seems like half the Emerald City heads out to rescue them. The Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Lion, Scraps, Button-Bright, Ojo, the Glass Cat, Tik-Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead, the Woggle-Bug, the Shaggy Man, Cap’n Bill, Trot, Betsy, the Frogman, Uncle Henry (but for some reason not Aunt Em), the Wizard, AND Glinda.

That’s eighteen people! Tik-Tok, the Woggle-bug, the Lion, and Jack don’t get any lines once the quest is underway. Shaggy, Cap’n Bill and Uncle Henry get one line apiece. One!

Gratuitous magical gizmo for the Wizard: a skeropythrope. He never leaves home without one.

***

All this is doubly superfluous because most of the conflict gets solved by the Rightful Rulers of the Flatheads, working together with a Plucky Skeezer Lad. Also, another magic-user (a Yookoohoo, same type as Mrs. Yoop) who gets talked into helping via reverse psychology.

(The Yookoohoo, Red Reera, is another shapeshifter, and apparently Baum’s original manuscript had her appear as a wired-together skeleton with glowing eyes. Okay, that’s appreciably dark. In the published book, she spends most of her time as an ape.)

Dorothy has a good moment where she figures out how to raise the island. The magic was designed by one person, the Skeezers’ usurper queen, so all she has to do is apply the psychology of the individual. Well done.

In a nice reversal, the end sees the Flatheads all transformed to have round heads, with space to safely store their brains. So they’re much less likely to get lobotomized now.

And the Skeezers get to elect their new ruler! They pick Lady Aurex, a sweet, subversive courtier who took care of Dorothy and Ozma while they were prisoners. Good choice.

The moral of the story, according to Ozma, is that it’s always important to do your duty — meaning her royal duty to step in when a war is brewing, and bring the diplomacy.

The moral of the story, it seems to me, is that you shouldn’t send twenty characters to do a quest that needs, like…six, max.

Especially since it really seems like the locals had this covered! Which is, to be fair, not a bad note to leave the series on. Oz is in good hands.

Erin Reads: Princess Ozma’s Party Guests

Only two Oz books left in the reread.  I’m dragging it out with some of Baum’s other works.

…so I had this mostly geared up last Monday, and then, uh, some stuff happened that took precedence. And there will be more election-handling signal-boosting posts to come. But for now, let’s take a trip back to the beginning of the 20th century…in the fun children’s-fantasy way, not the way the Republican Party wants to take the country for real.

Dot and Tot in Merryland

From general osmosis I thought Dot and Tot were magical children, but no, Dot is a normal American kid! In contrast to Dorothy’s poverty, Dot (full name Evangeline Josephine Freeland) is the daughter of a banker. Grew up with servants, they own multiple residences, her mom does a health-improving tour of Europe without any detriment to her finances. Tot is the gardener’s boy, a little younger, reminiscent (preminiscent?) of Button-Bright’s first appearance.

Looks like this is the first book Baum published after Oz became a runaway hit? He’s not very creative with names yet, is he. Dorothy and Toto; Dot and Tot.

The kids are in a boat that comes loose, and drift through a cave and into the valleys of Merryland. There’s a clown valley, a candy valley…the Queen is a doll, and lives in the Valley of the Dolls. Kitty valley, toy-animal valley, and eerie Valley of Lost Things.

It’s…remarkably boring. The valleys are themed based on Stuff Kids Like, which feels like pandering without a whole lot of thought put into it — and it falls flat, because “I like watching clowns” doesn’t necessarily mean “I like reading about fictional characters observing that they like watching clowns.”

We only get tiny blips of conflict, like when Tot eats a Candy Man’s thumb. (Dorothy notices the missing thumb in Road to Oz. Continuity!)

I do like the running gag of never getting an answer about the Queen’s name until the very end.

***

So I’m listening to a charmingly bland passage about the valley of the candy people, when OH SNAP suddenly I can tell you why this book hasn’t stood the test of time.

A man made of marshmallows abruptly throws out this gem:

“One of our greatest troubles is that we cannot depend upon our colored servants, who are chocolate. Chocolates can seldom be depended on, you know.”

Aaaand not long afterward: chocolate “serving maids, with complexions so dark brown in color that Dot was almost afraid of them.” WOW.

The illustrations, too — I looked it up on Gutenberg — aren’t shy about things like golliwog dolls. (The cooks are black dolls and the chambermaids are china dolls. Good lord.)

…It occurs to me that, since this is from 1901, the whole “comparing black people to chocolate” trope might actually have seemed like a clever innovation at the time? But whoo boy has that not aged well.

(Things that don’t age well even though they weren’t a problem to start with: the valley of cats features liberal description of “pussies.”)

Verdict: Technically better-crafted than Mo, not as good as the Trot books, maybe on a par with the worse Oz books…but holy cow, that overt racism. Skippable.

***

Zixi of Ix (or, The Magic Cloak)

This one was originally written as a serial for a magazine (and it shows). The plot flips between Ix and Noland, both countries whose royalty also showed up at Ozma’s party.

King Bud and his sister Princess Fluff sounded older at the party, but here the country of Noland seems almost unmagical, and they start off as normal kids. The king dies; some obscure statute says the 47th person to come in the capitol city’s gate the next morning is the new king; and, whoops, it’s the recently-orphaned Bud.

(Real names: Margaret and two-years-younger Timothy. Baum sure does love writing kids with weird nicknames.)

Meanwhile, the faeries have made a magic cloak because they were bored, and gave it to Fluff. It grants wishes, and she cheerfully lends it out to people indiscriminately, so accidental havoc-wreaking wishes ensue. Things like “I wish I could fly” or “I wish I was ten feet tall.”

The palace has lightning rods! Modern!

Shameless references to children getting whipped. Un-modern.

The sentence-by-sentence writing in this one is really solid. Good scene-setting. Good dry wit. When the councilors are initially debating what to base their decisions on:

“This book of laws was written years ago and was meant to be used when the king was absent or ill or asleep.”

And this is from when Bud first takes office:

“Just now it is your duty to hear the grievances of your people,” answered Tallydab gently.

“What’s the matter with ’em?” asked Bud crossly. “Why don’t they keep out of trouble?”

“I do not know, your Majesty, but there are always disputes among the people.”

“But that isn’t the king’s fault, is it?” said Bud.

Enjoyable, thoughtful scenes about what it’s actually like for a kid to suddenly have absolute power. Like, there’s an unusually subtle mix of “from the mouths of babes” and “you just got conned, because you have no idea how to do this.”

***

We’re almost halfway through the book (chapter 10 of 23) when we actually pay a visit to Ix, which appears to be another mostly-mundane country, except that Queen Zixi is a witch of 683 years old who still looks 16. (The rest of the populace ages normally. Reference to old men whose grandfathers remembered how Zixi was just as pretty when they were kids.)

Ouch:

“…for newsmongers, as everyone knows, were ever unable to stick to facts since the world began.”

Sudden body horror, yikes. “To mortal eyes Zixi was charming and attractive, yet her reflection in a mirror showed to her an ugly old hag, bald of head, wrinkled, with toothless gums and withered, sunken cheeks.”

And that’s why Zixi vows to steal Fluff’s cloak.

Geez, from her presentation at Ozma’s party (…and, let’s face it, her name alone), I was expecting her to be generally Ozma-esque, much the way Betsy is Trot-esque. Not so!

Her first scheme is downright Pratchettian:

Then Zixi had printed on green paper a lot of handbills which read as follows:

“MISS TRUST, a pupil of the celebrated Professor Hatrack of
Hooktown-on-the-Creek, is now located at Woodbine Villa (North Gateway of
Nole) and is prepared to teach the young ladies of this city the
Arts of Witchcraft according to the most modern and approved methods. Terms
moderate. References required.”

Even more so when she says “all right kids, come in tomorrow wearing your best cloaks!” — and Fluff’s immediate response is to think “huh, that sounds really suspiciously specific.”

I’m really sad that Ixi only keeps this up for like a chapter before deciding “screw it, I’m just gonna declare war on Noland.”

***

“Yet I can never resist admiring a fine soldier, whether he fights for or against me. For instance, just look at that handsome officer riding beside Queen Zixi—her chief general, I think. Isn’t he sweet? He looks just like an apple, he is so round and wears such a tight-fitting jacket. Can’t you pick him for me, friend Tellydeb?”

(That’s from Tollydob, one of the councilors. I could ship it.)

The war is also won by Nol pretty fast. You can tell Baum is constantly working in a mindset of “better wrap things up, the next chapter might be my last — oh, it won’t? — okay, better make up a whole new conflict, and fast.” Like a TV writer, only more so.

Zixi finally gets ahold of the cloak by getting herself hired as a maid, making an imitation cloak, and swapping it for Fluff’s in a game of Duck Season/Wabbit Season. So technically it’s not stolen, and the magic works.

Although she still screws up her wish. Sigh.

By the way, this book is blissfully racism-free, but it does give us this bit of unnecessary meanness:

“Why do you sob?” questioned the queen.

“Because I want to be a man,” replied the child, trying to stifle her sobs.

“Why do you want to be a man?” asked Zixi curiously.

“Because I’m a little girl,” was the reply.

This made Zixi angry. “You’re a little fool!” she exclaimed loudly.

I’m just going to pretend that was a trans girl wishing she was a cis man. Makes it all the better when, in a chapter or so, she’s decided to love and accept herself for who she is.

***

Two-thirds of the way through, Zixi wanders out of the narrative completely, and in bounce a civilization of rubber people living up in the mountains. Baum sure loves his bouncy people, huh?

They decide to take over Nol, and do a much better job of it than Ix did. Especially since the kids don’t have the real cloak to use in self-defense anymore. So they decide:

“Well, there’s no one else we can trust, so we may as well try Zixi.”

Seems like a fast turnaround for an Enemy Mine situation, but okay.

What finally ends the story is that the fairy queen Lulea comes to get her cloak back. She’s sick of it being used for silly things. Bud complains that it’s not fair: he didn’t get a wish, because he’s been holding off until he had a really good idea.

And Lulea lets him have one! So instead of being a clunky Aesop about not putting things off, it becomes a story about how taking your time and thinking about your decisions is valuable, and wise queenly types appreciate it.

“I wish,” announced Bud gravely, “that I shall become the best king that Noland has ever had!”

Epilogue says that it works! Plus, Fluff later marries the unnamed prince of an unspecified kingdom, and is also a good queen.

***

John Dough and the Cherub

This one’s all plot.

A Mysterious Arab(TM) named Ali Dubh has been hoarding the Water of Life for years now, the latest in a long line of hoarders, but since he’s being chased by people who want to steal it, he gives it to someone else to keep safe…and makes the mistake of choosing a French-American baker couple, who promptly accidentally use it to bring a five-foot-tall gingerbread man to life.

John Dough is another animated-artificial-humanoid in the vein of the Scarecrow or Jack Pumpkinhead, whose main goal in life is not to be destroyed (in his case, eaten). He starts off in the mundane US, but a Fourth-of-July firework takes him to the unsubtly-named Isle of Phreex, and from there he journeys through a series of weird islands trying to stay one step ahead of Ali Dubh.

For the record: while the whole “sinister Arab antagonist” thing is awfully sketchy, at least this time Baum doesn’t put in anything about how all Arabs are [insert stereotype here].

On Phreex, John meets Chick the Cherub, who immediately decides to be his best friend. Chick’s whole backstory is so trippy. Apparently “putting a baby in an incubator” is the 1910s equivalent of the 1960s “accidental dose of gamma radiation” — a plausible-sounding excuse for all kinds of bizarre physical traits. No parents! Incredibly intelligent! Needs a special exotic diet! (Conveniently, it excludes gingerbread, so John has no fear Chick will eat him.)

And this is fun: Chick is canon nonbinary. And/or intersex. It’s not clear how much Baum knew about either issue, but we do know is that the writing plays a strong game of pronoun-dodging, and when a pronoun is unavoidable Chick uses “it.”

Para Bruin the rubber bear is also from this story! (Baum’s thing for rubber strikes again.)

Is this the only Baumian book with a language barrier? John Dough is magically enabled to speak to anyone, but Para Bruin speaks one language, Chick and the other humans speak another, and the Mifkins speak a third.

Unexpectedly serious body horror when John’s fingers get eaten off.

The story wraps up in a typical Baumian way: John stumbles into a country (well, two countries; this is the book that Hiland and Loland are from) that needs a new ruler, and the people immediately decide he’s a great choice.

Apparently the publishers wanted Baum to firmly establish Chick as male or female by the end. He refused. The last few lines of the book:

“The Records of the Kingdom say very little of Chick’s later history, merely mentioning the fact that the King’s most valuable assistant was the Head Booleywag, who grew up to be the especial favorite of all the inhabitants of the island. But, curiously enough, the Records fail to state whether the Head Booleywag was a man or a woman.”

Erin Reads: The Surprisingly Modern Gender Politics of Oz

Gotta finish this Baum reread, because it’s Yuletide season and I may need the canon refreshment for my assignment and/or treats.

The Tin Woodman of Oz — book 12 — is a nice low-key novel, heavy on the backstory. Useful plot hook: another random Oz civilian, this time a Winkie boy named Woot, wanders to the Tin Woodman’s castle, where Nick Chopper and the Scarecrow treat him to food and backstory. When Woot hears that Nick used to be engaged to a fellow Munchkin before he was rebuilt without a heart, he declares that it’s Nick’s duty to fulfill his promise and marry the woman (thus making her Empress of the Winkies), even if he doesn’t love her.

Bonus: from his self-description, the Tin Woodman is what in modern terms we would call canon aromantic:

“She said she still loved me, but I found that I no longer loved her. My tin body contained no heart, and without a heart no one can love. […] [T]he Wizard’s stock of hearts was low, and he gave me a Kind Heart instead of a Loving Heart, so that I could not love Nimmie Amee any more than I did when I was heartless.”

The quest is front-loaded with boys…which is thoroughly plot-relevant, because a girl in the party would have stopped them and said “why are you assuming this woman is still pining after you? She hasn’t even seen you for decades. She’s probably moved on.”

***

Plenty of little continuity drops. Woot used to live near Oogaboo. The Scarecrow has learned poetry at the Woggle-Bug’s college. Woot gets lost and falls into a cavern full of dragons, which are clearly the same underground dragons we saw in book 4.

And there’s the castle of the Yoop, from book 7! In a mirror/foreshadowing of the characters’ main bad assumption, they assume that since the Yoop is locked up, his castle will be empty. Turned out that was only Mr. Yoop — the home is still occupied by Mrs. Yoop. And she’s hella powerful. Like “casually mentions she has Polychrome in a birdcage in her room” powerful.

Poly’s temporarily a canary, but she still has magic powers, she just has to do things like pick up a twig and wave it around in her beak.

She turns Nick into an owl. But he’s still made of tin! And the Scarecrow gets to be a little bear, stuffed with straw. It’s hilarious. (Woot: a green monkey.)

So much meditation on identity, and transformation, and what qualities make you yourself! Since Nick got all his original body parts replaced one at a time, is he really still the same person? If he keeps his memories and personality but happens to be shaped like an owl, does that make him unsuitable for marriage? How about if he’s shaped like a man, but only a few inches tall? The others get drawn into the theme with their unwilling transformations, and there’s a related sequence where the Scarecrow has to give up his stuffing, so Poly carries him in the form of a bundle of clothes for a while.

…also, a one-off scene with a guy named Tommy Quick-Step, who, after an unfortunate wish, has a really long torso and 20 legs. Insert your own human-centipede jokes here.

***

Our heroes continue walking/flying toward Winkie Country, but now they make a deliberate detour to Jinjur’s house. I love that she and the Scarecrow are buddies now.

Luckily, Ozma and Dorothy have been spying on the party via Magic Picture this whole time, so they rendezvous at Jinjur’s place to reverse the transformations and say hi. (Along with Toto. Still comfortably using human language, though it’s mostly to say things like “Leave me out of your magic, please!”)

Ozma appears “about 14 or 15,” and Dorothy “much younger.” (But only half a head shorter?) This is the book where Baum really doubles down on the “nobody ever ages, really, there are babies in this country who have been babies for thousands of years” version of continuity.

Sure enough, Dorothy: “Do you s’pose Nimmie Amee still loves you, after all these years?” Nick is totally convinced. Ozma says that, well, it can’t hurt to go visit her and ask.

Anyway, it turns out Nimmie Amee got a new boyfriend (a soldier, unsubtly named Captain Fyter) not long after Nick broke up with her. The witch tried the same limb-lopping-off trick, and Fyter did the same incremental replacement with tin prosthetics, aaaaaaaand that was what convinced Nimmie Amee to accept a marriage proposal. She has a thing for tin!

But Fyter conveniently got rusted in a rainstorm, so after Nick oils him and hears his backstory, they try to figure out which of them has a better claim to their one-time fiancée.

Woot: “If she’s into tin, you’re basically interchangeable.”
Scarecrow: “Why don’t you draw lots for her?”
Polychrome, currently the only girl in the party, eyerolling so hard you can probably see it from space: “No, you idiots, it’s up to her who she marries.”

Seriously, the gender politics of the whole thing feels way ahead of its time.

***

Massive body horror alert:

In trying to track Nimmie Amee down, the party goes to the tinsmith who made Nick’s and Fyter’s tin bodies…and find out that he still has their leftover meat parts. Still alive. Most of them in a barrel. Nick finds his own old severed head in a cupboard, and they have the most bizarre conversation.

On top of this, it turns out the tinsmith patched together a bunch of those parts to make a whole new Frankenstinian person. All the “what makes you yourself, anyway?” thematic questions are getting slammed, and hard.

The tin men finally find their old sweetheart living in the mountains. They still expect her to be actively crying over her lost love.

Nope. She’s married. The body-horror-chimera guy has been her husband for, like, decades now. And she’s not interested in either of the tin guys,

Good going, girl.

On the way home they stop in the Emerald City, and the tin men ask, kinda pathetically, what they should do about all this? Ozma sets them straight with an incredibly patient “look, your ex is happy, and it’s really none of your business.”

Fyter gets hired as a soldier by Ozma, while Nick and the Scarecrow return home, to get back to bro’ing it up for the next few decades. And the Tin Woodman soothes his ego with the idea that, eh, the Winkies probably didn’t want an empress anyway.