I admit I came across Wicked when I was looking for the next musical to watch. It was the music samples online that drew me into the story and brought me first to the novel, then to the musical. And I recommend both most warmly, even though the book will probably not be liked by a younger audience.
published: HarperCollins 1995
copy: trade paperback
series: The Wicked Years #1
my rating: 8/10
first sentence: From the crumpled bed the wife said, “I think today’s the day. Look how low I’ve gone.”
When Dorothy triumphed over the Wicked Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum’s classic tale, we heard only her side of the story. But what about her arch-nemesis, the mysterious Witch? Where did she come from? How did she become so wicked? And what is the true nature of evil? Gregory Maguire creates a fantasy world so rich and vivid that we will never look at Oz the same way again. Wicked is about a land where animals talk and strive to be treated like first-class citizens, Munchkinlanders seek the comfort of middle-class stability, and the Tin Man becomes a victim of domestic violence. And then there is the little green-skinned girl named Elphaba, who will grow up to become the infamous Wicked Witch of the West, a smart, prickly, and misunderstood creature who challenges all our preconceived notions about the nature of good and evil.
First, let me say how brilliant I find the origin of the Wicked Witch’s name. Elphaba is made up of the original Oz author’s initials, L. Frank Baum –> LFB plus a few vowels to make it pronouncable. We don’t actually get to meed her for a while as the story starts out with her parents, most remarkably her slightly nymphomaniac mother. It was very early on that I realized I was not reading a cute children’s retelling of the Wizard of Oz but a novel for adults that deals with sexuality, moral issues and politics. All that serious business does not diminish how much fun this book is, though. Do not be scared!
When I read this, it became one of the books that demanded all my attention and made me put all other current reads aside (even Pern had to make way for Elphaba). The writing style, while definitely not easy, has a nice flow to it and makes Oz come to life in a way that Baum’s version pales in comparison. Don’t hate me but I never really warmed to the original story. Reading about how the villain became who she is when Dorothy meets her didn’t just show the Wicked Witch of the West in a new light, it gave the entire world of Oz a personality. What’s cute and fluffy in the original turns out to be brutal, political conflict, prejudice and sheer stupidity by the population that Elphaba is trying to fight.
We meet Elphaba when she is born and follow the green-skinned girl throughout her career at Shizz University where she is trying to make her fellow students think for themselves and see the world for what it is – a place where evil is afoot. Gregory Maguire cleverly introduces Elphaba to us thorugh numerous side characters’ eyes. I quickly came to love Boq, the Munchkinlander, who is nothing like in the musical (where they made him a little dumb and submissive). Glinda – formerly Galinda – also gets quite some stage time and shows us what she thinks of Elphaba. My all-time favorite character in this book is probably Nanny. What a cool person!
I would say the characters are this novel’s greatest strength but that would devalue that everything else is very strong as well. Maguire managed to create issues that a non-Ozian can relate to. Elphaba speaks up for Animal rights (as opposed to animal rights) – meaning Animals with a soul, who can talk and behave like humans. Oz is not a playground for little kids, it’s a political battlefield. Her main quest, if you want to call it that, is to find the source of evil. With all that going on, we have to remember it’s not easy being green and having a sister without arms…
We do find out how Elphaba turns into the Wicked Witch, even though personally I’d never have called her truly evil. There are a lot of questions left unanswered which will probably be resolved in the sequels. A nice little extra: Every part of the novel starts with a beautiful black and white illustration that I found myself going back to while reading.
Gregory Maguire was a big discovery for me. The man has some talent. He spun a vivid tale around L. Frank Baum’s childrens’ story and brought it to life more than the classic ever could. I warmly recommend this book to anyone who’s wondered about where evil comes from or – like me – who always though that Dorothy was uncool.
THE GOOD: Vivid writing, amazing setting and characters, challenging yet beautiful style.
THE BAD: It may not look it but the book is actually quite long. It took me a while to get through and I see how some people will find the style daunting.
THE VERDICT: An utterly gripping tale that brings Oz to life and draws you into a whole new version of the beloved childrens’ classic.
RATING: 8/10 eight excellent Munchkinlanders
- Son of a Witch
- A Lion Among Men
- Out of Oz
A FEW WORDS ON THE MUSICAL:
While the follow the same characters, the stories told in this novel and its musical adaptation are vastly different. The musical is fluffy and cute and simply hilarious. It features some of the most memorably music I’ve ever heard and is suitable for people of all ages. There is nothing as dark and gritty as in the book but I love both for having their own merits. Each version makes the story its own.
I listened to the soundtrack while writing this review and am feeling a familiar tug to go back and explore Gregory Maguire’s Oz some more. Good thing the rest of the series is already waiting on my Everest-like TBR pile.