Nearly 10 years after his breakout debut “Wicked,” a fantasy-rich chronicle that retold the tale of the Wicked Witch of the West set in a politically tumultuous and imaginary Oz, Gregory Maguire returns to the land that has become explosively popular with the premiere of “Wicked: the Musical.” In “Son of a Witch,” Maguire conjures all his old tricks – political intrigue, keen characters and persuasive fantasy – into a tale of violence, rebellion and the search for identity.

The novel revolves around Liir, a young man whose present and past are cleverly entwined as he lays in a coma. Liir’s heritage is much debated – is he the son of Elphaba, the late Wicked Witch of the West?

The plot builds around Liir’s search for his childhood friend Nor. Around this driving story device, Maguire constructs a much more complex framework, involving subtle backstory told in dream sequences and patient character development. Liir’s unwilling involvement in Oz politics seems an inevitable result of his heritage – but is he really Elphaba’s son?

The question remains unanswered, but Liir’s character is expertly developed. By crafting him as a man without an identity, Maguire uses him to reflect both Oz’s turmoil and the mounting tensions in the story: Violence escalates, relationships crumble and religion plays a significant role. In the process, the reader gets a glimpse at Liir’s inner mind – his uncertainty and apparent lack of emotion progress into defining aspects of his character.

The novel’s creative fabric is textured and realistic. Instead of struggling with an elaborate, imagined world, the author uses it to his advantage. Unlike many fantasy novels, the substance here is the story, not the landscape.

Maguire does not lack details, though. By populating Oz with sentient animals, curiously cruel yet likable characters and strangely believable political chaos, he walks the fine line between sheer imagination and plausible fiction with admirable success.

The novel’s major drawback is a lack of sufficient explanation of character relationships. In several areas, interaction between Liir and his friends and foes are confusing, and important events that should serve to define character and elucidate plot are abruptly introduced without sufficient information. Confusion and an unwelcome surprise abound where there should be recognition, or at least confirmation of suspicions.

“Son of a Witch” reads at a quick pace, mixing elements of the past with shades of the future to elicit maximum suspense. Though some plot elements may seem bare on first reading, they are eventually fleshed out with the aid of the multidimensional characters. The author revives his questions about the true nature of evil as he delves into complicated issues of love, loyalty and religion. Here, Maguire undoubtedly sets the stage for his next novel, and fans of “Wicked” will follow him down the Yellow Brick Road once again.

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