Gregory Maguire’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West is not a companion novel to L. Frank Baum’s children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. While the two works share several main characters, such as the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good, this is where their similarities end.
Wicked, which later inspired the Broadway musical of the same name, gives the reader an alternative view of Oz and its inhabitants. Baum shifts the focus from Dorothy and her ragtag group of misfits to an odd little girl named Elphaba Thropp, whose green skin makes her the target for endless mocking, sideways glances and ridicule.
The narrative follows Elphaba, whose name was inspired by the pronunciation of Baum’s initials together as a single word: L. F. B., from birth through her school days at Shiz University and up to her encounter with Dorothy.
To say that Wicked is simply an origins story for a villain would be misleading. Baum introduces a myriad of original characters and settings, including (but by no means limited to) Elphaba’s parents, the leaders and citizens of each district of Oz and the students of Shiz University.
He also manages to put a twist to Baum’s original plot, asking neglected questions: Why was the Wicked Witch so evil? What was her life like prior to her run-in with the girl from Kansas? For that matter, what was Oz like? How did these things come to be and why?
Don’t be fooled by the film adaption: this novel is not just a fairy tale of sorts. Baum has managed to make Oz gritty and rife with more political unrest than you can shake a stick at.
As a fair warning, Maguire’s blunt descriptions and occasional inclusion of certain adult themes make this off-limits for younger readers.
This is a novel I would recommend to fans of fantasy, alternate realities and plot twists. Those who enjoy political fiction may also be interested, as Elphaba acts as a long-standing activist for causes in Oz such as Animal rights (the “A” is capitalized because they demand to be given the respect they deserve. Did I mention they can speak?).