Wicked / Son of a Witch
Illustrated by Douglas Smith
WELP it may have taken me the better part of a month, but I’ve finally finished this brick. I originally thought I wouldn’t have much to say, but, well, you know me. In the end I decided that Wicked gets a 4 and Son of a Witch gets a 2, which averages out to a fairly respectable 3 for the first half of the series. I was going to give them both a flat 3, but, upon reflection and upon the writing of this review, I’ve decided that Son of a Witch does not deserve even a 3 because it was a fucking mess.
A little bit of background: I knew almost nothing about Wicked the book going in, because all of my Wicked lore was culled from “Wicked” the musical. I have read The Wizard of Oz and in fact loved it when I was little, and am now going to have to read it again because I’ve forgotten almost all of it. Wicked the book took me by surprise because it is significantly different from the musical, which really took some liberties. This sometimes works in its (the musical’s) favor and sometimes not, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
The trouble with both Wicked and Son of a Witch is that they don’t feel like one cohesive story. They are uneven in pacing, tone, and character development. Almost nothing gets tied off. The ending of Son of a Witch is worse than the ending of The Chronicles of Alice. I realize there are two other books in the series, but I do not appreciate being dragged along on one journey, only to find it splintering off into a million different sub-arcs that aren’t even remotely connected to the original arc. While I love the setting, the premise, and the characters (up to a point), overall this series really didn’t do it for me, and I will not be reading the final two books.
On the off chance some poor soul stumbles across this blog after lurching out from under the rock that prevented them from noticing the phenomenon that was “Wicked” the musical, “Wicked” is the story of Elphaba Thropp, a little girl who is born with green skin. She was secretly fathered by the Wizard of Oz, but on paper is the daughter of Frexspar Thropp, the governor of Munchkinland. She faces prejudice and scorn all her life but demonstrates a talent for magic, and eventually grows up to become the Wicked Witch of the West. Events quickly spiral out of her control, and in the end she fakes her death and runs off with her lover, Fiyero, whom she inadvertently turned into the Scarecrow in an attempt to save his life.
That was Elphaba according to the musical, but the book is quite different. Book Elphaba is the green-skinned, water-repulsed daughter of the Wizard of Oz and Melena Thropp, and, as the eldest great-grandchild of the Eminent Thropp (Melena’s grandfather), is titled Thropp Third Descending. Her nominal father, Frexspar the Godly, is an unshakeably devout Unionist minister whose occupation doesn’t provide much in the way of great wealth. While Elphaba is still a toddler, both her mother and her father conduct separate affairs with Turtle Heart, a Quadling glassblower who lives with them for a time; this results in the birth of Nessarose, Elphaba’s younger sister, who is born without arms. Following the murder of Turtle Heart, Melena and Frex are overwhelmed with guilt and move to Quadling Country to convert the Quadlings. Most of the family survives the ordeal, but Melena dies giving birth to a son, Shell, who – unlike his older sisters – is actually born physically unobjectionable. Later Elphaba and Nessarose attend Shiz University, where they befriend Galinda Arduenna Upland, a wealthy Gillikinese girl; Boq, a Munchkinlander who attends a neighboring all-boys’ school; and Fiyero Tigelaar, an Arjiki prince.
Things go peacefully for a while, but their school years are marred by increasing acts of discrimination and violence against Animals (sentient beings who happen to be animal-shaped), including the murder of one of their professors. Following a disastrous visit to the Wizard of Oz, Elphaba drops out of school and runs away to become a revolutionary, and later has an affair with Fiyero, who spots her by chance and tracks her down. This doesn’t pan out any more than the visit to the Wizard of Oz did, and she drops out of the revolution as well and takes shelter in a mauntery (nunnery). Meanwhile, Fiyero is ambushed and murdered by the Wizard’s secret police force. Following his death, Elphaba spends seven years as a maunt (nun), during which time she gives birth to a son named Liir, and eventually makes her way out to Kiamo Ko to make amends to Fiyero’s widow and children for his death. She and Liir live with Fiyero’s family for a while, but their tranquil existence is destroyed by the soldiers who show up on their doorstep; Fiyero’s family is arrested and never seen again, and Elphaba spends another several years breeding flying monkeys, but is never able to rescue anyone. A reckoning shows up later in the form of Dorothy Gale and her cohorts, and, well, you know the rest. After his mother’s inevitable death, Liir leaves Kiamo Ko to search for Nor, Fiyero’s daughter and Liir’s half-sister, who survived the massacre of her family but was then enslaved by the Wizard.
This was actually a lot better than I thought it was going to be. To be fair, my bar was super low because Mirror, Mirror is nowhere near any of my Top 100 lists, but for the most part I really enjoyed Wicked. It was hilarious and engaging (again, mostly), with less of the unbearable rambling that characterized Mirror, Mirror. The first two sections were amazing. Elphaba was so funny and so relatable, and not what I expected at all. Then I hit sections III and IV, and I lost all interest in the book until things finally picked up again at the end of section V. If the entire book had had the same tone and pace as section V it would’ve gotten an unequivocal five stars, but I found III and IV unbelievably dull, even though they weren’t particularly long. I liked the political commentary, which obviously is very much relevant to our current times, but my god some of that philosophical meandering needed to be cut out. I thought we could’ve done without Avaric’s dinner party for a start, and the scene at the Philosophy Club. There’s also a troubling scene where Nor, age ten, performs a completely unsolicited deep-clean of the visiting soldiers’ barracks, grows warm, takes off her blouse and puts on one of the soliders’ capes, lies down on a nearby pallet with the cape falling slightly open around her, and briefly fantasizes about having the soldiers find her partially naked before realizing this is stupid. My fellow women, kindly chime in. I didn’t do this when I was ten. Did you? Did anybody??? I’m not ruling out the possibility that this is normal ten-year-old behavior, but it still seems weird to me. I get that she’s lonely and bored and kind of silly, but I don’t care for the image of a ten-year-old girl half hoping a bunch of grown ass men will be enticed by her new breasts. In her defense, she gives up this fantasy very quickly and she’s not so deluded as to actually carry through with her idiotic idea of pretending to fall asleep (in order to be discovered half naked by the soldiers), but I feel like this is a scene that maybe shouldn’t have been written.
Fiyero was another disappointment. I thought he’d be more active, but I have come to the conclusion that the biggest disservice the musical did to him was whitewashing him, which in turn removed the only interesting thing about him. Of course, it’s not really clear what exactly distinguishes people in the Vinkus from people elsewhere in Oz. Fiyero is brown-skinned, which I’m taking to mean the Arjiki are all brown-skinned, but what about the rest of the tribes? Where did Sarima and her sisters come from? They seem to follow traditions I would expect to find in Munchkinlander homes (e.g., Lurlinemas), but did they grow up with those or are those something Fiyero brought back from Shiz? I wish the Arjikis and their rivals had been better explained, because the picture in my head at the moment is an African or Middle Eastern tribe with an inexplicably European culture. Meanwhile, Fiyero bumbles around playing his part as a faintly discontented and vastly underutilized husband, father, and prince and doing absolutely nothing up until the moment he is murdered, and I’m pissed on his behalf because so much more could’ve been done with his character.
And now, in spite of all my complaining, here’s all the stuff I liked. The book was really, really funny. I never expected it to be as funny as it was. When Maguire’s not going off on rambling tangents, his dialogue is on point. Here, for instance, is Nanny being Nanny:
“Come on, bees,” said the Witch, “work with me now. All together on this one, honeys. We need a little sting, we need a little zip, we want a little nasty, can you give us a little jab? No, not us, listen when I talk to you, you simpletons! The girl on the hill below. She’s after your Queen Bee! And when you’re through with your job, I’ll go down and collect those shoes.”
“What’s that old hag blathering about now?” said Nanny to Liir.
And here’s Nanny driving the point home:
“Nanny, Liir,” said the Witch, “take yourselves off to the kitchen. Bring the Lion with you.”
“Is that old bag talking to me?” Nanny asked Liir.
And then there was this:
“No throwing, Elphie dear,” called Nanny.
“I’m only saying what I hear. They say at night that Quadlings fall asleep and their souls climb out through their mouths and go abroad.”
“Stupid people say a lot of stupid things.” Melena was curt and too loud. “I have never seen his soul climb out of his mouth while he was sleeping, and I’ve had plenty of opportu—”
“Darling, no rocks,” shrilled Nanny. “None of the other children have rocks.”
“Now they do,” observed Gawnette.
Liir suddenly leaped over and took hold of Dorothy’s other hand. “You old hag, let her alone,” he shouted.
“Liir, really, you pick the most awkward times to develop character,” said the Witch wearily, quietly. “Don’t embarrass yourself and me with this charade of courage.”
“I’ll be all right—just take care of Toto,” said Dorothy. “Oh Liir, take care of Toto, no matter what—please. He needs a home.”
Liir leaned over and kissed Dorothy, who fell against the wall in astonishment.
“Release me,” mumbled the Witch. “Whatever my faults, I don’t deserve this.”
The best part of the book was, of course, Elphaba. I was not expecting to identify with her to the extent that I do, but she’s a whole ass mood.
Galinda saw Elphaba arrive in the back of the room, dressed in her usual casual red shift, two books under her arm and a scarf wound around her head. She sank into the last empty chair, and bit into an apple just as Madame Morrible was drawing in a dramatic breath to begin.
She’s also an excellent wingwoman.
“I came here to propose that we meet from time to time, that’s all,” said Boq. “That we meet as friends. That, free of expectations, we come to know each other as dear friends. I do not deny that you overwhelm me with your beauty. You are the moon in the season of shadowlight; you are the fruit of the candlewood tree; you are the pfenix in circles of flight—”
“This sounds rehearsed,” said Elphaba.
And yet, for all its humor, Wicked is also incredibly sad in some ways. Even though it’s often presented comically, I think the worst part for me was seeing how lost Elphaba became, how much of herself she lost to her growing paranoia. The onset seemed sudden because she didn’t really start obsessing over it until the end, but in fact the seeds were planted fairly early on. No one just “loses” it; there’s always a build-up, even if it’s subtle, and it was heartbreaking to see how completely it took her over.
Yet even with the heartbreak, her final scene was so beautifully written that it carried the book from a three to a four. I loved how her death was handled. Whatever her faults, I’m glad we didn’t get treated to the sight of her dissolving into a puddle of green goo. It would’ve been nice if we’d had some explanation as to why water is toxic to her, but I suppose we don’t technically need one. It’s canon. We just accept it.
Son of a Witch
This was even more of a mess than Wicked. Elphaba’s gone, there are dragons, Liir fucks around in the army for a bit and fathers a daughter through some kind of immaculate (or possibly just unconscious) conception shit, Nanny is still alive for absolutely no reason at all, and Elphaba’s gross creepy brother is somehow the Emperor?
To quickly recap, Liir is found naked and facedown in a trench about a decade after Elphaba’s death. He is taken to a mauntery, where a young Quadling maunt named Candle guides him through his memories of the past by playing music while he’s in a coma. Liir, it turns out, has led a busy life: since his mother’s demise, he has joined the Emerald City Home Guard, committed a major war atrocity, attempted to attend a Conference of Birds, met the Once and Future Emperor (who had totally no idea that Liir was his nephew), utterly failed to find Nor, and learned to fly Elphaba’s broom. It was the Conference of the Birds that did him in: he was attacked by a handful of secret(ish) dragons en route to the Conference, which resulted in him landing naked and facedown in the aforementioned trench. After his memories run out, he and Candle relocate to an abandoned farm and set up house, and, after he has recovered sufficiently, he finally makes it to the delayed Conference. After speaking with the Birds, he goes back to Emerald City, where he murders the dragons that attacked him and goes on the run with dragon trainer Trism bon Cavalish, with whom he has a brief affair. He then returns to Candle, who is somehow pregnant with his child even though it’s not clear when or how he impregnated her, but leaves again for an Elephant’s funeral. Upon his return he finds that Candle has disappeared, leaving behind a little green girl.
I know I always say I don’t like romance, but I really don’t like Maguire’s romances because they don’t make sense to me. Out of all the romantic couplings, Elphaba and Fiyero had the most chemistry, which wasn’t much, to be sure, but they still made more sense than the other couples. Liir x Trism was way out of left field and I can’t really say I was into it (although, to be fair, I also wasn’t into Liir x Candle, which had some faint rapey undertones). Candle’s sweet and all, but she doesn’t really have a personality. The most spirit you see from her is when she’s pregnant and dealing with a load of unexpected Scrow guests, which quite understandably makes her a bit snippy and resentful, but otherwise she’s just that little foreign girl who doesn’t talk because nobody else speaks her language. Later, when she finds out that Liir does speak her language, she starts talking but otherwise acts as his maid-of-all-work, his very vague love interest, and – inexplicably – the mother of his child. Then at the end she disappears to who fucking knows where, leaving a seemingly stillborn green baby bundled in Elphaba’s cloak with no explanation. The big “reveal” that the baby was actually alive wasn’t really a reveal so much as the most predictable possible ending to the story. Liir somehow concludes that Candle must have run off to distract ill-intentioned persons away from her newborn daughter, which of course is perfectly possible, but you really don’t know either way. I did find it interesting that Liir produces a green daughter, which to me suggests that Elphaba was some kind of mutation, though to what end I don’t know. Everyone keeps describing her as powerful, but she wasn’t really…? She clearly states several times in Wicked that she has no talent for magic and she doesn’t actually do much of anything, but apparently being the only person willing to openly defy a despot and having a handful of animal familiars is enough to get you labeled “powerful.”
That being said, WHEN THE FUCKING FUCK DID LIIR MANAGE TO GET A WOMAN PREGNANT? Candle tells him when and how and why, but this is never explained in any sense to the reader and this is not okay. There needs to be some explanation, if only to assure me that his sperm was not collected and injected into Candle while he was in a coma, and that neither of them was raped. Also I’m mad at Liir because he murdered the dragons, and I wish they’d eaten him. (I realize the dragons were being very naughty, but, given a choice, I will always side with dragons.) While we’re at it, is he never going to answer for committing an act that amounts to genocide? Getting nibbled raw by dragons doesn’t count because that wasn’t retribution for his atrocity. Getting confronted and almost murdered by Trism doesn’t count because Trism was only concerned about how the genocide had affected him personally and he didn’t give two shits about the people who actually died as a direct result of Liir’s actions, and at the end of the night he and Liir still hooked up for no real reason I could see.
And, of course, none of this is enough to distract me from the biggest issue I have with this series overall: What distinguishes the characters of color from the white characters? I could sort of see why Sarima and her sisters might follow traditions that didn’t naturally fit into my general understanding of their culture, which wasn’t very well defined to begin with, but what is the point of making your book diverse if the non-white characters are basically white people with different skin colors? Do they have no traditions or beliefs or foods of their own? Why are their languages so similar to English? Even when speaking Qua’ati, Candle drops a music joke that works in English but presumably wouldn’t work in other languages:
“You can’t grow a melody on purpose,” she said, and slyly added, “you have to plant an accidental.”
Overall this book was so unfinished, and it sounds as if Liir’s story won’t be picked up again until book 4, which I will not be reading because I have concluded that I have no need to read anything by Maguire ever again. Other authors have a habit of overexplaining, but Maguire consistently underexplains. He throws random weird ass words at you and expects you to keep up even though he does nothing to further your understanding of this world that he’s trying to convey. I don’t mind books that throw you in head first and illuminate as they go along, but nothing is clear in Maguire’s writing and it would’ve been nice to have some inkling of what exactly skarks are. I thought maybe that was his special word for horses, but horses do in fact show up elsewhere in the books, so that’s not it. I’m beginning to think this is what one of my coworkers meant when he said that Maguire has his own little pidgin, and if you don’t get it he can’t be bothered to explain it.
So, yeah, not continuing with the series. Son of a Witch gave me a headache, and, now that I’ve finished these two books, I’m leaving the rest of Maguire’s oeuvre right where I found it.