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To those of us with a taste for it, fantasy's glory is precisely that for which it is so often derided, or (more often) ignored, by those who seem to believe that art must justify itself by being somehow useful or relevant, and that it certainly mustn't be "escapist."

Fantasy allows the reader to inhabit, for a brief time, another world - sometimes better, sometimes worse, but always different - just as literary fiction allows the reader to see life, for a while, through the eyes of another "person." At its best, fantasy creates a time and a place as specific and as real as Tolstoy's Napoleonic Russia or Tolkien's Middle-earth. Though they wrote very different books, both Tolkien and Tolstoy were good enough writers to know they needed to be true to the stories they were telling. Neither Frodo Baggins nor Pierre Bezukhov represents or symbolizes anyone or anything but himself; they are characters true their times and places.

Readers who enjoy fiction rather than instruction are still free to draw comparisons and analogies to their own lives and their own times, and fans can (and do) enjoy endless debates about those analogies. But they must, in the end, admit that the interpretations are personal and beyond proof. As with the lives of even our closest friends, Frodo's story ultimately belongs to him; we can only guess at what it meant to him.

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On the surface, Gregory Maguire's A Lion Among Men - the third novel in his Wicked series, set in L. Frank Baum's land of Oz - has all the trappings of fantasy. Set in an invented world replete with witches and wizards, Munchkins and talking lions - and mostly devoted to a conversation between a Lion (indeed, the famous Cowardly Lion himself) named Brrr and an un-dead oracle called Yackle, who once knew the Wicked Witch of the West - Maguire's novel is clearly not set in Kansas.

Faced with a choice between a long prison sentence on trumped-up charges of treason or going to work for the Emperor of Oz as a spy, Brrr makes the obvious (and cowardly, it hardly needs to be said) choice and soon finds himself at a "mauntery" (a religious retreat akin to a convent), where Yackle has literally risen from her crypt just in time to be interviewed by him.

Strangely enough, Brrr and Yackle sound more like a pair of academics sparring at a cocktail party than what I imagine a much-put-upon talking Lion or an ancient Oracle who wants to die but can't would sound like:

He wrote in his notebook: Claims to have amnesia about her youth. Dotty? Honest? Clever? Canny strategy to avoid her legal liabilities?

"We're here to do some discovery about your relationship with the Thropps," he said. "Can we continue?"

"I thought you said it was Madame Morrible's connections you were tracking down."

"Madame Morrible. The Thropp sisters. There is some overlap, as you bloody well know. Now just start where you can, and I'll cut you off if you ramble."

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"I don't think I like you," she said, "but since this is nearly a posthumous tea party to which I've been invited, maybe it doesn't matter if I like you or not."

"You came from your coffin to talk to me," he reminded her. "You must have had something to tell me now, right? Got some beef you're eager to turn into hash. I'm your willing audience. I'm all ears, I am."

"Got some beef you're eager to turn into hash." Maybe we are in Kansas after all. We're certainly not any place exotic.

Maguire's prose is as flat as his dialogue. Despite his ritual bow toward Tolkien, and his assertion that his Wicked books are "homages" to Baum's originals and the 1939 film, his writing suggests he either doesn't understand fantasy or doesn't respect it.

"The other maunts gave no credit to the drunken gibberish of their cowardly novice. They assumed she had succumbed to panic at the threat of war. Immediate war, local war. You could smell it in the air, like laundry soap, or an ailment in the sewers. … Conscriptions having thinned the countryside of its farmhands, General Cherrystone released teams of men to assist in harvesting first-growth olives and early kindle-oat. The army then requisitioned most of what it had gathered as its fee for helping out."

This bland, sloppy prose - I don't know about you, but the smell of laundry soap and that of "an ailment in the sewers" bring to my mind two very different images - perfectly illustrates Maguire's contempt for the secondary creation in which he has chosen to play. He makes no attempt to create a world other than our own, choosing instead to offer up a set piece of 20th-century neurotics discussing their pasts while awaiting the arrival of armies; the characters seem to believe in it no more than does the author.

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Readers who enjoy puzzling out allegories wrapped in the fraying paper of a favourite childhood story may take pleasure in Maguire's parlour games, but those of us who prefer a story that takes itself seriously will have to look elsewhere. Maguire's Lion is only a literary device in a threadbare animal costume.

Geoffrey Dow survives in Toronto working on a technical support help desk. He lives with a non-talking (though far from mute) cat and is working on what he hopes will be his first published novel.

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