The Valley of Gwangi

Last month, Robert E. Vardeman mentioned that he’s a fan of the Ray Harryhausen film The Valley of Gwangi in a post on his Patreon site. A couple of weeks later, when I was on a panel discussing Weird Westerns with Jeff Mariotte at the virtual CoKoCon, the film came up again. Although I had been aware of the film and had seen clips, I’d never watched the whole thing before, so I took this as a sign that I should finally sit down and watch it.

Cowboys and dinosaurs meet in The Valley of Gwangi

The film starts off looking like it’ll be a pretty ordinary western. T.J. Breckinridge runs a struggling rodeo on tour through Mexico in the early 20th century. Her former boyfriend, Tuck Kirby, wants to buy her out, but she doesn’t want to sell. T.J. has an ace up her sleeve. Gypsies brought her a tiny horse from Forbidden Valley and she expects it will be a great attraction. A paleontologist named Horace Bromley, recognizes the animal as no ordinary horse. He declares it’s the prehistoric horse, Eohippus. The leader of the gypsies say the little horse is cursed and convince Bromley to capture the horse and return it to Forbidden Valley. Bromley, of course, is interested to see what other creatures might live there. To get the horse, the gypsies have to knock out one of T.J.’s men, Carlos.

Tuck sees the gypsies leaving and discovers they’ve taken the Eohippus. He sets out after them. Unfortunately, Carlos saw Tuck and thinks he’s responsible for the theft. T.J., Carlos, and several of the rodeo riders set out after Tuck. They all soon arrive just outside the Forbidden Valley. After sorting out what’s going on, Tuck nearly recaptures the Eohippus, only to have it disappear into a cave in the cliff face. T.J., Tuck, Horace, and the rodeo riders set out after it. It turns out the Eohippus didn’t go into a cave, but entered a passageway leading to the Forbidden Valley. The rodeo men clear out some rocks and soon our band goes riding into the valley.

Once in the valley, our heroes discover that Eohippus isn’t the only prehistoric creature living there. They’re soon attacked by a pteranodon. After dealing with the flying creature, they encounter a small plant eating dinosaur. The rodeo riders decide it would make an even better attraction than Eohippus, so they chase it, only to have the dinosaur snapped up in the jaws of Gwangi, an Allosaurus. From this point on, the movie becomes full-on cowboys versus beautiful Ray Harryhausen dinosaurs. Our rodeo riders take refuge in a cave that foreshadows the Land of the Lost TV series I watched as a kid. Eventually, the cowboys capture Gwangi and take him back to town. In a finale reminiscent of King Kong, Gwangi breaks free and rampages through the town where he corners T.J. and Tuck in a cathedral.

All in all, the movie is great fun and a terrific example of a Weird Western story. As always, Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion monsters are a marvel to behold. There’s a scene where the rodeo riders attempt to lasso Gwangi and Harryhausen seamlessly blended the live-action and stop-motion photography. The only real problem with the effects happened because the film’s post-production was rushed and Harryhausen was never allowed to color correct his footage. As a result, the dinosaurs have a tendency to change colors from purple to gray to green from scene to scene. While I’m not generally a fan of tinkering with old movies, I wouldn’t mind seeing a color-corrected special edition of this film where the dinosaurs are each a consistent color.

You can find Robert E. Vardeman’s Patreon at: https://www.patreon.com/robertevardeman

As a friendly reminder, this blog is supported and kept ad-free in part by my Patreon, which is at: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Tank Girl

In my last post, I discussed the panel “Bad-Ass Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy” that happened at this year’s virtual CoKoCon. Among the people on the panel with me were five-time Bram Stoker Award-winning author Linda D. Addison and Jenn Czep, the talented author of such books as Cloud to Cloud and Blackstrap’s Ecstacy: A Corsair Captain’s Log. Both mentioned Tank Girl as one of their favorite bad-ass women in speculative fiction. When authors of this caliber recommend something, I listen. I remember Tank Girl appearing on the shelves of comic shops I visited back in the early 1990s and I remember when the 1995 movie came out, but I hadn’t actually read the comic or seen the movie. Among other things, that was the period of my life when I was just getting started with my astronomy career and my first child was born in 1995. So, I decided to learn more about Tank Girl.

Tank Girl in comics and at the movies

Tank Girl started in 1988 as a comic created by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin, which appeared in Britain’s Deadline Magazine. Set in the near future, the action takes place in a post-Apocalyptic Australia. The title character not only drives a tank, but lives in it as well. Her boyfriend is a sentient kangaroo named Booga. Her closest friends are women called Jet Girl and Sub Girl. You can, no doubt, figure out their vehicles of choice. The stories are generally ribald adventures. One of my favorites involves Tank Girl being fed up with the bad beer foisted on her by some large corporation and decides to find and steal some good beer. She convinces Jet Girl and Sub Girl to go with her. They succeed only to wind up teetering on the edge of a cliff in the tank, in danger of falling over due to the weight of the beer cans. Of course Tank Girl and her friends decide to dispose of the beer by drinking it! The best way I can describe the Tank Girl comic is Mad Max meets Loony Tunes.

In the 1990s, MGM was scouting for a hip property to develop into a movie and they bought the rights to Tank Girl and gave it a pretty good budget. As the story goes, once they started seeing the movie, they got scared and insisted that it should have a tighter plot and that the crude humor should be scaled back. As such, the movie’s a classic case of a great comic watered down by studio interference. Despite that, the quirky charm of the Tank Girl character still comes through. Lori Petty who plays the title character bears an uncanny resemblance to her cartoon counterpart. Also, the sentient kangaroos were well realized as practical on-screen effects. What’s more, the soundtrack, supervised by Courtney Love, is excellent and features songs by Devo, Joan Jett, and Ice-T, who also played one of the kangaroos.

Tank Girl is a no-holds-barred, irreverent character. She’ll poke fun at almost everything and if she doesn’t like you she’ll straight-up maim you or kill you. I can see why she’s a favorite of authors like Jenn Czep and Linda Addison. When I think of characters like this, I tend to think of characters like Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters or Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton from Big Trouble in Little China. Men tend to get these wise-cracking, streetwise roles, so it was refreshing to see a woman in that kind of a part. There have been rumors that Margot Robbie would like to film a new Tank Girl movie. Hopefully she can make a version that captures even more of the comic’s unflagging spirit.

The Magnificent Five

As I’ve noted in earlier blog posts, I’ve been listening to the Gerry Anderson Podcast, which distributes new episodes to various podcast platforms on Mondays. Recently, they introduced an audio book and novel by co-host Richard James called Five Star Five: John Lovell and the Zargon Threat. The audio book is available from Big Finish Productions and I downloaded it so the family could listen while taking my youngest child back to college a couple of weeks ago. Five Star Five was the name of a movie project Gerry Anderson was developing after Space: 1999 and I’ve often heard it called his answer to Star Wars. A script had been completed, studio space had been secured, and work on pre-production began when the project was abruptly halted because one of the major investors pulled out of the project. Unfortunately, the project was never finished.

That’s where Richard James comes in. He took the script and turned it into a novel this year, so the rest of us could finally learn more about Five Star Five. The premise is that the evil Zargon Empire plans to take over the peaceful planet Kestra. On Kestra, Colonel Zana seeks a champion to help save them from the threat. So far, this does sound a bit like Star Wars. The person she hopes to recruit is John Lovell, a freelance freighter pilot who reminded me a little of Han Solo, right down to his hirsute co-pilot Clarence. As it turns out, Clarence is a talking chimpanzee. At first I thought the character would put me off, but it turned out elements of the character hearkened back to both Planet of the Apes and Rocket Racoon from Guardians of the Galaxy.

Once Lovell is maneuvered into helping the Kestrans, the story becomes less Star Wars and more The Magnificent Seven as Lovell goes out to recruit a team to help him defeat the Zargon invaders. His team includes a powerful, but sensitive robot, a mystic, and a kid who communicates telepathically with his robot dog.

Unlike other Big Finish productions I’ve listened to, this one is an audio book with Robbie Stevens serving as the sole narrator. Music and sound effects are provided by Benji Clifford. Stevens’ narration is so well done and his voices for the characters so well thought out, I almost felt like I was listening to a full-cast audio drama. I do highly recommend the audio edition. The total runtime of the audio is 5 hours and 19 minutes, so it does feel more in-depth than a movie, but the action never slows down.

John Lovell and the Zargon Threat also felt very much like a first adventure in a series. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gerry Anderson would have produced more movies in the series if the first had proven a success. I suspect the movie Gerry Anderson would have produced circa 1979 would have have rivaled both the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises in effects quality. What’s more, I thought this was a more engaging take on the idea of “The Magnificent Seven in Space” than 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars. It would be fun if the folks at Anderson Entertainment decided to give us more Five Star Five adventures.

Peacekeeping in Oz

The final Oz novel by L. Frank Baum, Glinda of Oz, opens with Ozma and Dorothy deciding to pay a visit to the sorceress Glinda the Good. While there, Dorothy takes a peek at Glinda’s book that provides news of everything happening everywhere in the world. We learn that the book does not provide detailed accounts, but limits itself to the headlines and a brief summary, which does seem to foreshadow the news results from modern search engines. While browsing through the book, Dorothy learns that two of Oz’s peoples, the Skeezers and the Flatheads are preparing to go to war. Ozma promptly decides to put a stop to this nonsense. After a stop by the Emerald City to put the Scarecrow in charge during her absence, Ozma and Dorothy leave on a peacekeeping mission.

Dorothy and Ozma’s first destination is the mountain home of the Flatheads. As the name implies, these people all have flattened heads. In fact, their heads are flattened just above their eyebrows, which leaves no room for brains. So, they carry their brains around in cans. The Supreme Dictator of the Flatheads claims to be the smartest of the bunch because he has more than one can of brains, all because he took brains from others of his kind. It turns out, the Supreme Dictator is none too happy with Ozma’s interference and plans to imprison her. Thanks to some quick thinking on Ozma’s part, the two princesses escape and make their way to the island home of the Skeezers.

The Skeezers’ island has a great, glass dome and can be lowered into the lake. Queen Cu-ee-oh of the Skeezers isn’t much happier about Ozma’s interference and promptly arrests Oz’s monarch and her companion. She then lowers the island below the lake’s surface and commences to launch a submarine assault on the invading Flathead army. During the melee, Queen Cu-ee-oh is transformed into a diamond swan and forgets all the magic she knew to raise and lower the island. Dorothy and Ozma end up trapped and Ozma has no way to untangle the magic that lowered the island into the lake.

Fortunately, Glinda—remember this is a book about Glinda—sees in her big book that Dorothy and Ozma have been taken prisoner. She travels to the Emerald City and meets with the Scarecrow and Ozma’s advisors. They assemble a rescue party that consists of almost every major Oz character to date. This final book of Baum’s has some interesting perspectives on the limitation of magic in Oz and shows that it can’t simply fix every problem one might encounter.

Glinda of Oz was written at the tail end of World War I and was published in 1920, about a year after Baum’s passing. It’s clear he had things he wanted to say about the nature of war and war machines that can’t always be controlled by those who create them. The domed underwater city foreshadows many similar cities in later science fiction and fantasy novels. Although there’s a large rescue party at the end, it isn’t unwieldy. You get nice moments from the characters that make you glad to get to spend a little more time with them.

Although Glinda of Oz is the last of Baum’s Oz novels, it would not be the last Oz novel by a long shot. Baum’s publisher hired a writer named Ruth Plumly Thompson to take over the series. Between her and other authors such as illustrator John R. Neill, the canonical Oz series would continue until it reached forty novels.

Still, the real delight of the Oz series is that it was a series where both girls and boys could go on adventures. What’s more, both young and old could go on adventures. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em weren’t left behind on that Kansas farm while Dorothy had all the fun in a magical country. Those of us who write science fiction and fantasy do well to pay attention to Baum’s lessons. Over these posts exploring his novels, we’ve learned that Baum wasn’t perfect, but he left a series of novels that are still well worth reading. I hope this series has encouraged you to take a look at Baum’s Oz novels. If you have a favorite, I’d love to hear about it.

A Retread in Oz

The Magic of Oz was L. Frank Baum’s penultimate Oz novel. At “lucky” number 13, I expected great things. What I got was a rehash of story elements from earlier novels in the series. Hearkening back to The Road to Oz, it’s once again Ozma’s birthday. As the novel opens, our friends in Oz are scrambling to find the best presents for their beloved ruler. In the meantime, hearkening back to The Emerald City of Oz, our favorite nemesis, the former Nome King Ruggedo, is plotting his revenge on Dorothy and the gang. To achieve his aims, he teams up with a Munchkin lad named Kiki Aru, who lives high atop Mt. Munch. Because the mountain is so steep, the people who inhabit the mountain haven’t interacted much with the other people of Oz. This brought to mind the Frogman and Cayke the Cookie Cook from The Lost Princess of Oz. Even the conflict’s resolution recalls the ending of The Emerald City of Oz.

This is not to say the book lacks fun, it’s just that the best moments are more about the way these characters who have grown to know each other over several books interact than it is about the characters being in new situations. Trot, Cap’n Bill, and the glass cat go on a quest for a magical flower that constantly changes its blooms. Along the way, Trot and Cap’n Bill get into trouble and the glass cat, known for being a self-absorbed creature, must find help and save the day. In the meantime, we get to see Dorothy and the Wizard team up to create a magical birthday present for Ozma. During their quest, they stumble upon the villains trying to stir up trouble among the jungle animals. In a book like this which revisits so many plot threads from earlier novels, one might think the relationship between Dorothy and the Wizard would be hard to distinguish from the relationship between Trot and Cap’n Bill. However, Baum shows his deftness with characters and each set has their own, distinct “uncle-niece” relationship defined by their individual histories.

The Magic of Oz feels like one of those “filler” episodes of a long-running, but popular television show. It doesn’t really do anything to forward the story, but like the best of those episodes, you’re still happy to have spent time with the characters. Sadly, L. Frank Baum suffered a stroke and died about a month before this novel was released. I couldn’t find any information about his health at the time he wrote the novel, but this does feel like the work of a person struggling to provide a satisfying tale to hungry readers. He did write one more novel in the series, which would be published about a year after his death. We’ll pay our final tribute to L. Frank Baum in that post.

Moonbase Alpha

Back in April, I shared the model I built of Main Mission, the command center of Moonbase Alpha from the 1970s TV series, Space: 1999. As I mentioned at the time, the command center was only one part of the kit. The main part of the kit is effectively a diorama of the full Moonbase from the series. We saw the moonbase at the beginning of each episode in the title card, and often at various points in the series.

In the series, Moonbase Alpha was located in the crater Plato and was approximately four kilometers in diameter. The central tower housed the main mission command center we saw in the first season. The overall base housed some 311 people. The premise of the series was that a nuclear accident launched the moon from Earth orbit and sent it hurtling out into deep space. The series goes on to show the Alphans as they fight for survival during their encounters with assorted natural phenomena and various alien races. Needless to say, it was challenging to see how the physics would work out to get the moon out of the solar system in a short time span. Despite that, the moonbase was designed in a way that felt real. As a child, watching the show with wide-eyed wonder, I could imagine living on the moonbase and flying the Eagle transport craft. I remember asking my parents for an early edition of the Moonbase Alpha kit. They wisely turned me down. While it looks simple, I encountered some challenges along the way, even as a relatively experienced model builder. Here’s the finished model, photographed from approximately the same angle as in the title card.

Moonbase Alpha Model

Perhaps the biggest challenge of building this model is that the moon crater ground pieces are vacu-form plastic while the moonbase pieces are polystyrene plastic. What this means is that you can’t use standard polystyrene model glue to assemble the kit. Most of it must be done with a more general bonding agent such as cyanoacrylate adhesive or super glue. This is tricky stuff to work with, since you don’t want to get it on your fingers. If you do, it’s a good way to attach parts of the moonbase to yourself permanently! Another tricky aspect of this kit was that the travel tubes, the long radial segments coming out from the buildings, had to be cut to size. Fortunately, I’d watched a good video on YouTube from Starship Modeler that suggested that I should measure the pieces on the model itself rather than use the guide in the kit instructions. It gave me nice results and I was able to fit the tubes into position with little trouble.

Eagle on the pad ready for liftoff!

One of my favorite aspects of the series were the Eagle transporters, used to shuttle our crew on Alpha around the moon or to alien worlds they encountered as they hurled through space. One of the things I love about the most recent Moonbase Alpha kit is that they provided nice, detailed decals for the landing pads and the Eagles were made to scale. The challenge is that the Eagle in the photo above is only 1.5 centimeters long! I had to paint the details using my jewler’s magnifying loops. Still, I’m pleased with how the Eagles came out. I chose to place two of them out on landing pads since that seemed typical for a reconnaissance mission.

Moonbase Alpha mounted in its frame

I ended up mounting the whole base on form board to give it extra stability, and then having it framed at a local shop. It was a little expensive, but it now makes a nice wall hanging in my home.

While working on the model, I sought a little inspiration and came upon the Gerry Anderson Podcast. This podcast is hosted by Jamie Anderson, son of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, who created Space: 1999, Thunderbirds, UFO and numerous other wonderful British TV series. Jamie’s co-hosts are Richard James and Chris Dale. In each episode of the podcast, they discuss trivia about episodes, share news about new memorabilia and upcoming projects related to the Anderson shows, and interview someone related to the series production or has some insight into one or more of the series. A highlight of each episode is the “Randomizer” where Chris Dale watches an episode and provides commentary and insight. At times, his remarks can be as much fun as watching an episode of Mystery Science Theater. What’s more, his Randomizer segment has induced me to seek out and watch some of the Anderson entertainment shows I didn’t know about before discovering the podcast. I was especially delighted when they chose to read an email I sent in. If you would like to hear it, it’s in show 162 a little over 13 minutes into the episode. There is a Facebook group devoted to listeners of the show. I have enjoyed being part of the group, in part because the other fans take such delight in the podcast and the shows. Any criticism of the shows is clearly made with a good-natured spirit. You can learn more about the Gerry Anderson podcast and find places to listen by visiting https://www.gerryanderson.co.uk/podcast/

The Necromancer of Oz

The twelfth Oz book seeks to answer a question that has been lingering since the series began. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it’s revealed that Nick Chopper became the Tin Woodsman because he had the misfortune of falling in love with Munchkin lass who happened be enslaved by the Wicked Witch of the East. The Wicked Witch didn’t like Nick distracting her servant so she enchanted his axe. Eventually, poor Nick chopped off every part of his body. As each amputation occurred, a friendly tinsmith replaced the part until he was all made of Tin. Unfortunately, he got caught in a rainstorm and rusted in place until Dorothy found him. Afterwards, he went with Dorothy in search of a heart, because he could no longer feel love. So, what happened after Nick got the heart? So far in the series, we never heard any mention that he went back to seek out the fair lass, whose mistress Dorothy dispatched when she dropped a Kansas farmhouse on her.

As The Tin Woodman of Oz opens, a munchkin named Woot the Wanderer pays a visit to the Tin Woodsman’s castle and they exchange stories. Woot asks what happened to the girl. The Tin Woodsman explains that although the Wizard of Oz gave him a kind heart, it wasn’t a loving heart, so he never felt the need to seek out the girl, who we learn is named Nimmie Amee. Woot and the Scarecrow call the Tin Woodman on this and inform him that it certainly wasn’t kind never to return to Nimmie Amee and let her know what happened. So they decide to go on a quest to find the munchkin lass. If she still wants to marry Nick, he will consent … out of kindness, of course.

As the quest proceeds, we learn a little of the history of Oz. We hear how the Fairy Queen Lurline saw Oz isolated by the deadly desert and turns it into a fairyland where no one can ever die. In this part of the novel, we learn, “…when Oz first became a fairyland, it harbored several witches and magicians and sorcerers and necromancers, who were scattered in various parts…” When I heard this part, I had to pause and consider the necromancers of Oz. In a weird way, the book doesn’t just mention this idea, it eventually explores the idea.

Over the course of their adventures, Nick, the Scarecrow, and Woot meet up with Pollychrome the Rainbow’s daughter and also find yet another tin man rusted in place in the very same woods where Dorothy had found Nick. This tin man is a soldier named Captain Fyter. It turns out that after Nick became a tin man and rusted in place, Captain Fyter came along and also fell in love with Nimmie Aimee, who was heartbroken because Nick had vanished. The Wicked Witch of the East enchanted his sword and the same fate that happened to Nick, happened to Captain Fyter. Like Nick, Captain Fyter went to a nearby tin smith and was rebuilt. The two tin men decide to visit Nimmie Aimee together to see if she will marry either of them. Nick and Fyter visit the home of Nimmie Aimee and find she’s no longer around. So they decide to visit the tinsmith who made them into tin men to see if he knows what happened to her.

Now, remember that bit about how no one can ever die in Oz? When they get to the tinsmith’s house, they find he isn’t around. Nick looks around the house, opens a cupboard and lo and behold he finds his old head! He then goes on to have a conversation with his old head and finds his old self somewhat disagreeable. What’s more, when the tinsmith returns, we learn that he used the organic or “meat” parts of Nick Chopper and Captain Fyter to create yet another creature he names Chopfyt, which we ultimately meet and find it has its own personality. In effect, we do learn that the tinsmith who made the tin woodman and tin soldier is kind of a necromancer of Oz, which leads me to ponder other story possibilities about other creatures we thought long gone.

I found this exploration of how much the tin woodman and the tin soldier are like their original human forms really fascinating because of how much the scenes anticipate science fiction of almost fifty years later where writers would contemplate what happens to consciousness when the mind is transferred into a robot or a computer. I edited one such novel called Upstart Mystique by Don Braden. You can learn more about it at: http://hadrosaur.com/UpstartMystique.php

Finally, before I sign off, the virtual CoKoCon is this coming weekend. I’ll be discussing such topics as exoplanets, the weird west, badass women of science fiction, speculative poetry and magical creatures. You can find the schedule and register to attend for free at: http://www.cokocon.org/2021/index.html. The convention is all virtual, so you just need Zoom and/or Discord to attend the events from wherever you happen to be. Hope you’ll join us!

Marvel Comics in Oz

While reading L. Frank Baum’s original Oz novels, I discovered that Marvel Comics ran an Oz series from 2009 through 2012. Written by Eric Shanower with art by Skottie Young, the series adapted the first six Oz novels into comic format. Shanower is a long-time Oz fan and knows the books and characters well. He’s also an artist in his own right and I first discovered his work by finding his illustrations of Oz characters, which are strongly inspired by John R. Neill’s illustrations for the original novels.

Skottie Young started at Marvel drawing such titles as Spider-Man: Legend of the Spider Clan, Human Torch, and Venom. He was soon tapped to take on the Oz series. I have to admit, when I first encountered these adaptations the art almost kept me from diving in. It was a little more stylized and, well, cartoonish than my taste in comic book art. However, the more I looked at the art, the more I was reminded of the surreal illustrations Tim Burton drew while imagining The Nightmare Before Christmas. There’s something about the illustrations that’s warm and loving, but just a little creepy, which actually suits the material nicely. I warmed to Young’s style even more after watching a video where he told how Oz helped him find his preferred artistic style. I really love his take on Dorothy, the Wizard, and the Tin Woodsman, along with characters like General Jinjur and Professor H.M. Wogglebug T.E. from the later books. He also does real justice to scary characters like the Wicked Witch of the West and Road to Oz’s terrifying Scoodlers.

The comics are almost word-for-word adaptations of the novels, which means the adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has many notable differences from the famous MGM movie. That said, I noticed that Eric Shanower didn’t slavishly adapt the Oz novels when writing these comics. In his adaptation of Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, Shanower actually corrects a logic problem in the novel. Where L. Frank Baum gave us a deus ex machina ending, Shanower tweaks the resolution slightly and foreshadows it giving us some plot tension along the way. Yes, Shanower changes Baum, but he shows us how someone who knows and loves an author’s work can make it better. I suspect Baum would have approved.

After reading the six adapted novels, my primary complaint is that they didn’t continue to adapt the rest of Baum’s canon. Still, if you’re looking for a way to quickly see what the larger Oz universe has to offer, the Marvel Oz comics are a good place to jump in. They helped to refresh my memory of the first three novels, which I’d read several years ago. I then had fun seeing Shanower and Skottie’s adaptation of the three novels that began my current journey through Baum’s fantasy series. In 2020, Marvel brought the series out in three digest-sized volumes under the title Oz: The Complete Collection. Copies were available at both my local comic store and my local Barnes and Noble.

The God-Machines of Oz

Over the course of the Oz series, L. Frank Baum introduced quite a few magical items that should give our heroes almost limitless power. These include the magic picture, which allows Princess Ozma, ruler of Oz, to see what’s happening at a given time anywhere in the world, and Glinda the Good’s great record book, which automatically records absolutely every event taking place in the world all the time. And here I thought Santa’s book listing all the naughty and nice children would be enormous! In Book 11 of the series, The Lost Princess of Oz, Baum asks what would happen if these items, which he’s used to create some deus ex machina endings, disappeared along with Oz’s ruler. What transpires is an entertaining quest story as Dorothy and many of her friends seek the lost Ozma.

As soon as Dorothy discovers that Ozma is missing, she gathers characters from many of the Oz books to search high and low through the land to find out who captured the Princess and absconded with the magical items. Not only is the picture gone, but so is the Wizard’s magical bag of tricks. Four parties go on the search. The book largely follows Dorothy’s party, which is the largest. Betsy Bobbin, Button-Bright and Trot join Dorothy, the Patchwork Girl, the Woozy, the Wizard, the Cowardly Lion, and the Sawhorse on a sojourn to the Winkie Country. A suddenly talkative Toto joins the party as well.

Meanwhile in a remote part of the Winkie Country, Cayke the Cookie Cook discovers that her solid gold dishpan has also disappeared. This proves a terrible tragedy, since she can no longer make the awesome cookies she’s known for. So she sets out with the wisest man … er, frog in her part of Oz, the Frogman, to go find out who stole her dishpan.

This feels like one of those books that Baum wrote to please all his fans. He tries to work in every great character from the ten books before this and he actually does a pretty respectable job. I admit, I found myself cheering a bit when Cap’n Bill appeared and was left in charge of the Emerald City while everyone was away. The only person I really missed was Pollychrome, the Rainbow’s daughter. Not only does this book give us a return of many favorite characters, the new characters are just as memorable as the old. I couldn’t help but smile every time Cayke the Cookie Cook appears. We meet a race of sentient Teddy Bears and our villain has the unfortunate name, Ugu the Shoemaker.

As the novel progresses, we learn that Ugu has gone on a mission to capture all of Oz’s magic for himself. And yes, while I think making really awesome cookies ought to be considered a God-like power in its own right, it turns out Cayke the Cookie Cook’s dishpan has powers she didn’t realize. As befits a novel about a power-hungry man trying to control all the land’s God-machines, he’s undone by one that he didn’t know about because it came from a land outside of Oz.

All in all, The Lost Princess of Oz proves to be an enjoyable tale, if a bit unwieldy at times as all the characters vie for the spotlight. This wouldn’t necessarily be a good book for a first-time reader of Oz to dive into, but it’s a great book for fans looking to spend time with old friends.

Songs in Oz

With book number ten, I feel like I’ve reached a milestone in my journey through L. Frank Baum’s original Oz novels. Rinkitink in Oz opens up on the Island of Pingaree in the Nonestic Ocean, some distance from the land of Oz. The title character, king of a land adjacent to the domain of the Nome King, which we’ve visited in several other Oz adventures, arrives on Pingaree with his talking goat Bilbil. He’s a jolly sort who is happy to enjoy all the perks of being a king, but really doesn’t want the responsibility. He’s happy to eat, swap stories, and sing, but doesn’t really want to do the hard work.

Soon after Rinkitink arrives in Pingaree, the island is invaded by a force from the twin islands of Regos and Coregos. The people of Pingaree, including the island’s king and queen, are hauled away as slaves. Rinkitink, Bilbil, and the island’s young prince, Inga, are the only ones who elude capture. Fortunately, Inga had just learned about three magical pearls which give him hope for rescuing his people. One pearl gives him great strength, one gives him invulnerability, the third one gives him sage advice. With the pearls of strength and invulnerability ensconced in the prince’s shoes, he sets out with Rinkitink and Bilbil to rescue his people. All along the way, Rinkitink is happy to entertain his traveling companions with a song.

I’ve always found it interesting when songs appear on the pages of novels. I often find myself trying to sing the words and I wonder how close I might have come to what the author heard in their head. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been listening to these novels on audio. The Librivox recording of Rinkitink that I listened to featured a full cast. The good king was acted, and sung, by an audiobook narrator named Angleet. I thought he did a fantastic job singing Rinkitink’s songs. I don’t know if the melodies were those Baum heard in his head, but they were nicely done and felt true to the fairy tale-like atmosphere of the Oz books

In reading the Oz books to date, I’ve had the impression that L. Frank Baum was a fan of the Brothers Grimm. We see evidence of that in Dorothy’s magical shoes, the talking animals of Oz, and the witches, both good and evil. That noted, the books still have a distinctly American flavor as plucky, independent adventurers such as Dorothy or Trot find their way through the dangers of these lands. For much of its length, Rinkitink feels the most like a Grimm fairy tale of all these novels. In fact, our familiar Oz denizens don’t come into the story until the final chapters of the novel. At the risk of a spoiler, the most American aspect of this novel is how Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz come riding to Inga and Rinkitink’s rescue near the novel’s end.

Like Baum, I’m a fan of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I’ve translated a few of the tales and done my own retellings. They are available in the anthologies Gaslight and Grimm and It Came From Her Purse. Click on the links to learn more about the books.

Also, this coming weekend is the second installment of Buboni-Virtual-Con. I will be on the panel “Writing Badass Women,” which is scheduled from 6:30-7:30pm Mountain Daylight Time on Saturday, August 21. The schedule for the entire convention and information about how to watch the panels from your computer will be on Bubonicon’s website at: http://www.bubonicon.com/.