Review by Frank Plowright
Some consider there’s no such thing as a bad idea, just unimaginative treatment, and Justin Madson proves their point with a sparkling treatment of a concept many would consider less than promising. He mixes Frank L. Baum’s Oz with a modern day real world and current social problems, but makes that idea work in a touching drama about growing up and following your dreams. Given the emotional complexity, it’s at the older end of young adult dramas.
Fenn and Solar both feel their parents don’t understand them and don’t listen to them. The younger Fenn spends his time scouring through junkyards for parts enabling the rocket he and engineering genius Solar were once building together. Solar, though, no longer has any interest in the project, or much else, and has drifted into the company of the local teenage bully. During one of his trips Fenn meets tin woodsman Campbell, also at a loose end, having discovered acquiring a mechanical heart comes with its own problems.
Over a leisurely, but always engaging story, Madson gradually reveals why Campbell and Solar have changed from the people they once were, Fenn’s frustrations, and day to day life for ordinary people in Oz. It’s not a book that grips immediately, as at the start Madson shifts the focus with each chapter, necessary for careful character construction. Nihilistic creep Merrick is a monstrous creation, yet his equivalent is found in every town, and a satisfying aspect is Madson’s relatively subtle message about why school study is necessary.
The back cover blurb notes Madson as a self-taught cartoonist, but he’s an accomplished one, hitting all the appropriate emotional beats, creating the right environment for the story, and beautifully underplaying the intrusions of the fantastic.
Constant references to impending random tornadoes point toward a predictable climactic scene, but it enables the underscoring of what really matters. The remorselessly logical reader may not be pleased at mixed worlds being used as a backdrop without ever being explained, but that shouldn’t obscure an extremely well-told story where it’s the feelings that hook, not the action.