Rating - 4: worth reading multiple times (buy it)
More people are familiar with Wicked as a musical than a book. The musical features songs celebrating the death of the protagonist, foreshadowing her life in ironically hopeful lilts, showing her early oppression at the hands of her peers, mourning her failures in romance, and swearing off all goodness after the death of everyone she loves. Other characters get songs about how thinking is pointless because life is pointless and about how unsatisfying life is even if you get everything you ever wanted. The book is much darker.
"The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West," so you already know a bit of this story. As a member of the English-speaking world, you are expected to be familiar with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, although you probably know the movie rather than having read L. Frank Baum. Wicked hews more to the books than the film while mostly carving its own territory.
As for the story you know, Dorothy drops in at the beginning of the last section of the book. We start just before the birth of a green-skinned girl under auspicious omens, and we make our way towards death.
Elphaba is the witch's name, and her story is not a fairy tale. It begins in squalor and degradation, it visits cruelty and depravity, and it spends much time in desperation and despair. Okay, that is what fairy tales are like, but not the cutesy versions we get these days.
While we spend most of our time around Elphaba, less than half the book is from her perspective. We spend time with her friends, family, and lover, but we only see things through her eyes once they have gone sufficiently far downhill. In some ways, that is a shame, since the die has already been cast. She thinks at some moments that she could turn back from her path, but the story carries her through. We see the events that lead to her becoming the witch, but not through her eyes.
Her story might be best taken as the frustration of hope and idealism. Both lead to suffering and/or death, although there are other paths. Elphaba has her causes. They fail. She has her dreams. She wakes. You make bad decisions and you suffer; you make good decisions and things go badly; and then you fall down.
It's a tragedy. It's a Greek tragedy.
It really is. Her birth is attended by all the appropriate foreshadowing. She is gifted with will and charisma and cursed with deformity and hamartia. Her end was fated before the first page, so it is just a matter of seeing how she gets there.
The book rebels against this at times. The dwarf says that the future is yet unwritten, and the Elephant tells Elphaba she can choose her destiny. The same dwarf guides events through the time dragon, and shadowy recurring characters help keep events from running off the rails.
Much remains in shadow, which is one of the reasons the book bears repeat reading. Much is left implied rather than stated. Story threads are taken most of the way before becoming lost in the weave or severed by Atropos. Elphaba avoids some subjects and fails to resolve others. Feel free to debate how much is left standing behind the curtain and how much was never thought through at all; obscurity is not always profundity. At the very least, there is much material to work with.
If you have seen the musical, you might expect a neater story. The pieces are tied together on stage. The threads here are loose and often incomplete. If a character is no longer needed for the story, s/he fades, and you do not find out what happens to every named character. The ones with the good sense to stay out of epics and tragedies seem to live small, content lives.
If only the witch had more tools to work with. Unlike the musical, she is not much of a witch. She has little to no magic to speak of. She has a bit of natural science, a way with animals, and a few borrowed magical tools. She is very human, if green and lonely.
I should say at some point that the book is well written. You are not being bludgeoned or tortured. You can take this as a catharsis, or you can just follow the story. The characters, though often sketched, are drawn well. You care about them to the extent that you should. The callousness and cruelty has an impact but will not scar you.
There are no whole characters. There are many broken people. You see enough to understand how many of them act, and a bit of why, but as in life their full depths remain hidden. This works.
I have cited other authors for failing in all these things that Mr. Maguire does well. They cover everything with dirt, or spend too much time on feces as a symbol, or they just have shallow characters (too many to link there). Another of our four-star books successfully flirts with the human darkness that Mr. Maguire embraces.
He probably has an excess of castration, a symbol you could explore. It starts on the first page, and there are several mentions that something is odd about Elphaba below the waist. Castration is even a late-game sign of the protection of the innocent. I worry about how Mr. Maguire would show the rescue of Ozma; if you do not know where she is hidden, I will not spoil that book. I am inspired to read more of L. Frank Baum; I am told the series gets pretty dark by the end, which fits here.
The character of Shell is another oddity of the book, to my mind. He is an entirely new character with no reference in any L. Frank Baum that I have read, a brother to the Witch. He is mentioned frequently, but he only appears once. He is the family member who got away, the one without deformity or suffering in the tale. He is a spot of normalcy, conspicuous because of his absence. Maybe he meets Liir in the sequel.
There is more to say, there is much more, but as ever I have said quite a bit already. The book gets a four because it reads well and there is much worth considering a second time. Tragedy is not for everyone, but this is a good one, much more approachable in our day than Sophocles.
Also, get the soundtrack for the musical. That is definitely a four, worth listening to frequently. Dancing through life...
Author's web page
See Wicked on stage
The book that started it all
The movie that kept it going
The sequel that freaked people out, but is fair to the books
Read at least the opening of The Wizard of Oz, by the way. Even in the book, Kansas is set in black and white. The film nails it.