Apr 18, 2007

Wicked by Gregory Maguire

This was my first book by Gregory Maguire, but it certainly won't be my last, as I loved it and am quite impressed with his writing. First of all, I have to say that of the original world of Oz I’ve only read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. I know he went on to write 13 more books, and that there are “official sequels" by other authors, and I'm sure they add depth to the world, but the idea I have from that one book is that, although charming, Oz is a sort of simplistic world.

In Gregory Maguire's hands, though, Oz was turned into a world as complex as the world we live in. The way he depicts the different faiths of Oz and the struggles between them, its political intrigues, and its racial and ethnical tensions reminded me of some of my very favourite fantasy worlds, like Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, or Terry Pratchett's Discworld.

This book tells the life of the famous Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba, and also of her sister Nessarose, the Wicked Witch of the East. But what the book does above all is show us that "wicked" (as well as "good" or "evil") is too simplistic a label to classify being as complex as humans. Life is not black or white, but rather full of innumerable shades of grey.

My only complaint about this book is that it's divided in five sections, and there are big temporal jumps between them. What happened in the time separating them is only slowly (and sometimes partially) revealed. The change of section also normally brings a change in the character being focused, and suddenly losing track of a character one has grown to care about can be frustrating for the reader.

I realize that this book encompasses a long time-span, from the time Elphaba is born until her death, so not everything can be told in detail. And although this narrative strategy frustrated me at times, it also made the book impossible to put down for me, as I was dying to find out what had happened during the gaps.

My favourite of the sections was the one describing Elphaba's life at University, how some of the things she's exposed to shape her as a person, and how she begins to connect with others and make friends for the first time in her life. I'm a sucker for coming-of-age stories, and I love it when books give you a good portrait of the connections formed in a group of friends (this is, in fact, one of my favourite things about the Harry Potter books, for example). The book also rather brilliantly portrays the difficulties one has to face for being different . Both Elphaba and her sister were born different, and the nature of these differences, which I'll let you find out when you read the book, is a huge shaping force in their lives.

Even when the book ends, there are some mysteries that linger, and there's a huge sense of untold tales behind this story, of a large, complex world waiting to be explored. To me, leaving you with this longing for more is one of the marks of good fantasy. Fortunately, Gregory Maguire returned to his Oz with Son of a Witch and will do so again with A Cowardly War. I'm really looking forward to reading them. So, in conclusion, this is a book I strongly recommend. It's fantasy at its very best.

Other Blog Reviews:
Trish's Reading Nook
Dog Ear Diary
My Two Blessings
Katrina's Reads
Stella Matutina


  1. I really want to get to reading this one. It's one of the books I keep seeing and thinking "I must read that", then forgetting for a while and never getting round to.

    Great review, I think I may have to get to it sooner rather than later now!

  2. Yeah, I'd been in that situation for a few years as well. Needless to say, I'm very glad I finally picked it up.

  3. A friend of mine told me she was able to figure out who turned into the Tinman, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion from Wicked, but I never picked that up. One of the most interesting parts to me was the author's idea that the Wicked Witch melts away when water touches her because of baptism: she can't abide the purification of water. I always wondered why she melted, and that seems a good explanation to me. However, unlike you, I'm not tempted to pick up more books of his. I like when authors write their own stories, instead of piggybacking others.

  4. I didn't pick that up at all either - I need to pay more attention when I read it again!

    That's an interesting reading, but I must say I disagree. Elphaba was allergic to water since the day she was born, and how can a newborn child be impure? I saw it more as a result of her strange skin condition, but maybe it does mean something else.

    I agree with you, generally, but concerning Maguire, I think he transformed Oz so completely that he made it his own.

  5. Interesting string of comments about this wonderful book, and that's one of the things I loved about it: It's complex and subject to interpretation. I agree with Nymeth that Maguire made the story his own, but I am very fond of books and stories that retell myths and legends and fairy tales. I've read all of Maguire's other books and loved all of them except for Lost, which felt too fractured to me.

    Loved the review, Nymeth. Thank you.

  6. Oh, I love books retelling Myth and Fairy Tale as well. What I meant is that I'm not too fond of "official sequels" written by anyone other than the original author of a series, because the change in the creative voice ends up making me feel like the story in that book didn't "actually" happen in that world, if that makes sense.

    But books retelling Myth and Fairy Tale are wonderful, especially because they almost always add emotional content that the original tale didn't have the room for, or give a new perspective, so there's a wonderful mix of familiarity and novelty.

    I'm glad you liked my review. Thanks for commenting!


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