Review: The Wizard of OZ: A Steampunk Adventure by S.D. Stuart

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    We interrupt your regularly scheduled coverage on SF detectives to bring you this…

    As a kid, I used to love watching the 1939 film Wizard of Oz. My parents had recorded it on VHS so I could watch it again and again whenever I wanted. Of course we had to fast-forward through the commercials. This is a minor annoyance for most people, but for me it involved one of the most terrifying moments of my life.

    You see the tape had a trailer for the 1982 film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (or its video release, I can’t remember) and those who know me know I fear aliens more than anything. More than zombies, invaders from parallel universes or robot Stalin. Even the blurry sped up images of the cute, beloved alien frightened me. So whenever we came to the point of tape where we had to fast-forward through the trailer I would think of an excuse to run from the room and wait for someone to call me down when the film resumed. One day my mischievous father realized why I would always sneak out of the room, so during one viewing he waited for me to leave and paused the tape at the scene where the little alien has its neck extended, mid-scream. He called me back down and I came ready to start watching my beloved movie, only to see the face of pure terror.

    The horror, the horror.

    Okay the story above does have a point: the Wizard of Oz is one of my favorite films. I have read books, watched the sequels and saw the cartoon. But just as the characters in The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass remarked, only the first one mattered. Still I am willing to give anyone a chance who appreciates the Land of Oz enough to tackle the iconic characters and put a new spin on them. So when Steve contacted us bloggers for a chance to review The Wizard of OZ: A Steampunk Adventure by S.D. Stuart I shot an email off as fast as my stubby fingers could type. Oz? Steampunk? Adventure? This first volume of Stuart’s steampunk/Oz mash-up has a lot to live up to in my humble opinion…does it succeed?

    The plot centers on the Australis Penal Colony, a continent sized prison referred to the world over as the Outcast Zone (or Oz). Right off the bat the story intrigued me. Obviously Australis/Oz is a reference to Australia’s history as a penal colony for debtors, convicts and rebels. Australis/Oz however is more than just a prison, it is a dumping ground for undesirables from all over the world. Some ethnic/religious minority getting you down? Send them on a one way ticket to Oz. Do you have a horrible human experiment you need to cover up? I got a continent sized rug to hide them under. The world rejoices at its new-found peace by ignoring the people it exiled from civilization. With his Oz, Stuart has managed to capture the “punk” in steampunk.

    The story starts with a 10-year old Dorothy who is accompanying her parents, Professor and Mrs. Gale, to meet with the local governing council of the Colony to present a new invention (a twin pair of glowing green emeralds) which will revolutionize both the colony and the world. The board isn’t interested and informs Gale they are leaving the colony to let it run itself since any escape from the denizens inside is impossible. Gale is horrified but there is nothing he can do. Someone, however, wants his new invention and kidnaps him and kills his wife to get it. Dorothy is left alone, but is saved by an associate of her father who promises to train her to fight and one day rescue her father.

    Flash forward seven years later, a garbled message proves Dorothy’s father is still alive and trapped in Oz. Teenage Dorothy won’t be left behind this time and stows away on an airship carrying a rescue team for her father. The ship is shot down, however, and when Dorothy comes to she finds herself in a walled town of cloned midget wearing a shield on her new leather corset proclaiming her the “Marshall of the East”. This begins a journey to find her father. As she travels through Oz she discovers the prison has involved into a real nation full of different cultures with children who have been born and raised knowing nothing but the fortress they can never escape from. The iconic characters we know and love all make appearances including the unprogrammed automaton Scarecrow; the remorseless, chainsaw-handed executioner Woodsman; and the half-human, half-feline Caleb. And of course where would we be without the Wizard. He is the one man who can help Dorothy…and the man they buit Oz for.

    Stuart’s Oz is a fascinating place but sadly the presentation fails to give it justice. Despite being set in what appears to be the late 19th/early 20th century, the characters speak and think in modern lingo. Certain phrases have no business being in a book in a Victorian setting. The writing also suffers from too much tell and not enough show. Instead of the reader learning what the characters are experiencing and feeling from their natural actions and emotions, we are instead told in short blocks of text which acts as speed humps on the yellow brick road.

    Dorothy herself is a difficult character to take seriously. Despite being trained for years in how to fight by a secret organization dedicated to fighting whatever threat lurks in Oz and having a knowledge of advanced technology (she managed to restart the disabled Woodsman) she is remarkably naive and trusting. While I understand Oz is not meant to be an ordinary prison, it is still a prison and it is the place a group of armed murders took her father into. A little caution would go a long way and she continually allows herself to be captured.

    Although Dorothy is the main POV character, we sometime take short breaks to see through the eyes of other characters to see what is going on behind the scenes. For example, when Dorothy is captured by an agent of a rival Marshall, we know she is going to get rescued because we leave her to read about how her two companions are able to get the Woodsman to chase after them and appear in the nick of time to save Dorothy.

    This reminds me of the scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone if you come from the other side of the pond) by J.K. Rowling where during Harry’s first Quiddith match his broomstick becomes possessed and he finds himself holding on for dear life. Instead of witnessing Harry’s desperate struggle to save life, we are yanked to the POV of Ron and Hermione try to stop the person responsible for Harry’s broom malfunctioning. Personally I find this technique to be unnecessary when it could have easily been explained what happened to him once the action had concluded, just as it should have happened in Stuart’s Wizard of Oz. Furthermore, the transitions between POV characters could have been handled better to avoid those moments where you do not know which character is narrating the scene.

    While the writing needs improvement, I am still intrigued by Stuart’s Oz and would love to learn more about the land and the people who inhabit it. Hopefully future volumes will fix the major problems and the next adventure will be an easier read.

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