Gregory Maguire - Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West - 8.5/10
A little backstory first as of how I came to read this book: Like many people, I was taken with the recent Disney movie "Frozen" and mostly with its famous song "Let it Go" as performed by Idina Menzel. I started researching her online and listening to other stuff she's done, and the song "Defying Gravity" kept coming up, as well as claims of parallels between those two songs and between Elsa from Frozen and Elphaba from the Wicked play. So I listened to the song and had no idea what it was about but it was glorious, and since "Wicked" was never made into a movie and I had no chance of seeing the play anytime soon, I decided to read the book instead. oh boy, was I in for a surprise!
The book is really dark, not what you'd expect to be the basis of a Broadway musical and nowhere near what you'd expect from something based on "The Wizard of Oz". The book describes a very early industrial society plagued with poverty and racism. The land of Oz is ruled by a mysterious 'Wizard' who overtook the throne after a coup orchestrated against the monarch of the land, the "Ozma Regent". In the land of Oz, there are also sentient animals, called Animals (they distinct between sentient Animals and non-sentient animals by denoting the capital letter, which apparently is also pronounced differently), and they soon become subjugated to hate crimes, racial segregation laws and anything between slavery and full-waged ethnic cleansing, reminiscent of the Nazi regime among others.
But the plot of the book focuses around Elphaba Thropp, a girl born to a relatively eminent mother and a preacher father. Except Elphaba is born GREEN which obviously sets her apart, even in this fantastical land. The story follows Elphaba as she goes off to college in a place called Shiz, where all the rich girls go to get well educated, where she is roomed with a snobby pretty blond girl called Galinda. Despite Galinda's initial revulsion from Elphaba's skin condition and her lower social-economic stature, they eventually become close friends (and more, according to some interpretations), until their teacher - a sentient Goat - is murdered. Elphaba and Galinda are convinced it was a racially motivated murder, orchestrated by the head of the school Madam Morrible, who they suspect had a strong anti-Animal agenda. As they begin to investigate they set in motion a chain of events that will eventually set them on extremely unexpected paths, which as we know from the original Oz stories, will eventually lead Elphaba to becoming the Wicked Witch of the West, and Galinda to become the Good Witch of the North.
What's interesting, apart from the book portraying the land of Oz in a social, political and philosophical light filled violence and a surprisingly sexually liberated society (which is not what you expect from a lore that was originally a children's book and movie), is the twist on the characters as we know them. The Wizard is pure evil, ranking somewhere between Emperor Palpatine and Hitler, the "Wicked" witches are hardly evil, and the emotional connection you form with the main characters makes it so that by the time Elphaba takes the title of the "Wicked Witch", despite knowing exactly what her fate will be (as this is - after all, a prequel of sorts), you never stop caring for her - despite her eventual and anticipated fall into madness and her pre-known demise.
The only gripe I have with the book is it's pacing. It focuses for long chapters and things that might seem mundane, sometimes skimming on more important details and at least once or twice only briefly mentioning key elements to the story. I had to go back several times to see where several items and characters were previously introduced, but you may attribute that to my terrible attention span. That said, there are several time-jumps in the story that are oddly placed and cause a dissonance between what you feel a character's age should be and what the book informs you it actually is. And while most of that is pretty minor to the grand scheme of things, it still bugged me enough to knock the score of the book off down to 'only' 8.5.
On another personal note, in the last decade I tried to read many fiction novels and never managed to finish any, no matter how interested I was in them. I seemed to have lost the ability to read fiction, probably due to a late-bloomed attention disorder, and while I have managed to finish plenty of biographies and non-fiction, I've been having trouble with actual novels until this book. This is the first time I managed to read a fictional novel cover-to-cover, and in less than a week, no less. It was so gripping that I stayed up all night reading several times, something I haven't done in 15 years at least. I kept finding myself wanting to find more time to read, and whenever I wasn't reading all I could think of was Elphaba and the atmosphere of the land of Oz. I formed a strong emotional bond with the characters, mostly Elphaba of course, and grieved when I finished reading the book as if I had lost a friend. That hasn't happened to me in forever - and only for that this book deserves the highest score possible, so if I had to rank it personally rather than semi-critically, it would be a solid 10/10.
On some other goods news, I may visit New York this summer for some official family stuff, so I'll do my best to catch Wicked on Broadway. From what I understand the play is very different than the book, but despite being obviously lighter I keep reading that it's actually considered BETTER, and while I find that extremely hard to believe, I'll be damned if I pass on an opportunity to see it.