Let’s face it - Elphaba has suffered from some really bad public relations. With a title like “the Wicked Witch of the West,” one can only imagine how many assumptions are made about her before she even gets to open her mouth. Then there’s the whole issue of her green skin; it’s not her fault her mother took a drink from a stranger while pregnant, but alas, it is Elphaba’s burden to bear. But in this tale of the real side of the land of Oz, Gregory Maguire colors in all the details of the Witch’s life from birth to her unfortunate demise at the hands of Dorothy, who claims in retrospect that the water incident was an accident.
The land of Oz has been ruled by an Ozma for hundreds of years. Though each has had their quirks, the four lands of Oz have managed to get by for a long time. But the political sphere of Oz is thrown into chaos when the Wizard appears from beyond and slowly manipulates his way into becoming the leader of Oz. Shortly thereafter, he embarks on a return to segregation of humans and Animals, intelligent and verbally-gifted animals who have grown in equality with humans over the years. What’s more, the Wizard is building an army, changing laws, redirecting supplies and so much more that the merry old land of Oz has become quite the depressing place.
Born into royalty, Elphaba lives a childhood of isolation, not on account of her heritage but because of her appearance. When she comes of age, she is sent away to a boarding school where she meets Galinda and others who will help determine the course of politics over the next fifty years. But after discovering the darker nature of the Wizard’s intentions, Elphaba leaves the school, her friends, and her family to join the resistance in an attempt to return equality to Oz. In her adventures, she will find love, lost, loyalty, betrayal and eventually tragedy.
Maguire’s knack for reframing our perceptions of fairy tales has earned him great acclaim, including a musical broadway production of Wicked. Indeed, this novel has such depth and complexity to it, with a level of political intrigue and character development as full as in the epic fantasy genre. While fully capable in the use of amusing euphemisms, Maguire doesn’t hesitate to also be forthright with his readers on a variety of topics that make certain this Oz is not for kids.
Re-released in a new MP3 CD format, Wicked serves as hopefully one of the first of many MP3 CD audiobooks from HarperAudio, a mainstream publisher with some of the most popular fiction authors under their wing, including Neil Gaiman and some of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. The sound quality maintains crisp and the sound quality lacks any noticeable faults.
John McDonough performs a fantastic feat in his narration. His skill at storytelling ropes listeners in and compels them to follow this seventeen-hour tale to the end. McDonough brandishes a wide range of voices, captivating the eclectic cast almost perfectly in every instance. His rendition of Elphaba as a teenager might be dubious, a gargled voice that makes her sound older. But given that her character maintains a certain maturity, the choice does makes sense. Have no doubt though, McDonough executes the narrative passages of this tale with great timing and emphasis and follows suit with great vocal characterizations.
With a recently published sequel, Son of a Witch, Maguire undoubtedly wants to bring readers back to the magical world so well established and praised in Wicked. Regardless of how well the sequel works, listeners will flock to it without hesitation after listening to this fantastic production. We’re not in Kansas anymore; we’re in a the sophisticated and complex world of Oz, and enjoying every minute of it.