Years ago, when Wicked the musical first came out, I read the book on which it was based: Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire. I’d forgotten most of it, though, and I’d never read the other three books in the series. So when I came across all four on audio at my library, I decided to revisit them.
I’ll do my best to avoid major spoilers, but no promises since I’ll be discussing all four books in the review that follows!
About the Books:
The four books — Wicked, Son of a Witch, A Lion Among Men, and Out of Oz — chronicle the people and events of the Oz made famous in our world when Dorothy Gale blew there from Kansas in a twister. They begin with the birth of Elphaba Thropp — the future Wicked Witch of the West — and they continue through several generations.
Wicked is probably the best known of the series. It tells of the so-called Wicked Witch of the West, starting with her birth and following her through her college years, her friendship with Galinda (later shortened to Glinda), her rebellious period spent working against the Wizard, the events that brought her to live alone in a castle in the far reaches of Oz, and eventually to her death. Its culmination is Dorothy’s fateful trip to Oz and the mission given her by the Wizard as payment for his helping her get home to Kansas.
Son of a Witch
Son of a Witch tells the story of Liir, Elphaba’s son. It begins when he is a young man, found unconscious and battered in a desolate area and nursed back to health by a religious order of women. In his comatose state, his memory dips back into his past, filling readers in on the gap in time, until he wakes up. Then the story picks up from the present and follows his struggle to figure out who he is and what part he might play in the growing crisis facing Oz.
A Lion Among Men
A Lion Among Men is the Cowardly Lion’s story. His name is Brrr, and he has been sent by the government of Oz to the same religious order that cared for Liir to search for a magical book rumored to have been among Elphaba’s possessions. We learn his past and the past of another key character as he interviews one of the order’s oldest members. Most of this installment is backward-looking; only at the very end does anything happen to move the present-day narrative forward.
Out of Oz
Out of Oz, the final volume, is double the length of the others. It tracks several bands of companions in changing configurations, chronicling long periods of waiting and watching before much of anything happens. Oz grows ever more dangerous, and the various players we’ve met in previous books struggle to hide the magical objects they possess, or the bloodlines that run in their veins, or both. Before the book ends, some — though not all — of the threads left loose in the other books are finally tied together.
Well, Wicked is definitely my favorite of the four. I like the clever way in which it alludes to the version of Dorothy’s story we know. I think inventing new circumstances for familiar stories is a large part of Maguire’s skill.
I was less sold on his original creations. Their plots continue long after Elphaba is gone, and no other character seems able to step forward and fill the powerful and compelling role she held in the first book. It felt, just a little, like something was missing, like her absence left a bit of a void in the rest of the series. (Perhaps that was intentional?) I think Out of Oz was my second favorite, then A Lion Among Men, and finally Son of a Witch.
It’s not that the three later books are bad. They’re interesting enough. But they struck me as rambly and kind of pointless in parts, like Maguire wasn’t quite sure how to fill his pages, or like he felt he must account for every moment each character had been alive up to that point. There’s lots of waiting for signs and doubling back and wondering what to do next. There’s definitely enough of a plot line running through everything to keep you engaged and guessing, but I think if had I read the books instead of listening I might have gotten bored in places.
It’s quite possible Maguire meant for his books to read this way. I heard an interview with him, recorded after the first book was published, in which he talked about how he intentionally left loose ends in Wicked, because that’s how real life is. The same reasoning might explain why he didn’t cut out all the boring bits from the later books. After all, for most of us, life is boring more than it’s exciting, eh? It’s funny…I don’t think I’d have noticed so much had the novels been set in our world. It’s because they’re fantastical that I have this different set of expectations for them. Were I a citizen of Oz, reading the stories just after they’d happened, no doubt I’d be thrilled to my toes!
I do have to say that Maguire is quite good at creating worlds for his novels to unfold in. Oz has a well-traveled geography, a history and a mythology, several religions, government and legal systems, political strife, and social hierarchy, all of which are consistent and expanded upon over the course of the four novels. There are so very many characters in these books, and an impressive number have their own histories and personalities, according to the degree to which they’re involved in the story. And the relationships between people, places, and events just get stronger throughout the series.
I liked the audio productions, too. Well, three of them, anyway! John McDonough reads the first, third, and fourth books, and though he struck me as a little too gruff at first, it didn’t take long for him to win me over. Gregory Maguire reads Son of a Witch himself, and though he does a better job than some authors I’ve heard read their own works, I’d have preferred McDonough — and not just for the sake of consistency. Most of Maguire’s character voices sounded strangely robotic, and many of the women had lower voices than the men. Still, I’d definitely recommend the audio versions if you’re thinking about picking up the series. When you get to Son of a Witch, just know that McDonough comes back for the second half!
The Verdict: Enjoyable
Overall, I’m quite happy I finally made it through the whole series, and I’m glad I chose audio as the way to go. It’s a mostly engaging and inventive story, even if it’s significantly darker than the version of Dorothy’s story we’re used to.
What authors do you know of who tell alternate versions of familiar tales?