This is for my bud, Biteoftheweek. Bite has said she's evil, but I've never seen witchcraft there. The worst I've witnessed is bluntness, and, frankly, that aspect of her style is similar enough to that of people close to me that it's worth understanding. I like the adjective wicked better than I do evil. There's a word that connotes, to me, sinfulness and impertinence rather than malice: wicked ways, a wicked tongue. The word wicked suggests a more complicated place on the dour old good-n-evil axis, which, on many levels, badly needs a poke every now and then anyway. Sometimes, wicked can be wicked cool.
So you see where I'm going with this, right? Gregory Maguire's novel promised to expand on the legendary character from L. Frank Baum's (and less from Victor Fleming's) The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, presumably with the exculpatory context of the land's "punishing political climate." He seems to take some pride in his disquisition of good and evil, but is the witch bad...or is she wicked?
The story opens in oppressive economic times--drought and government expansion--but dumps the characters into a confrontation with evil of a more metaphysical sort. Maguire plays with these contrasts throughout the book, each well enough in their turn, but incongruously with one other. The middle portion of the book, surprisingly rich with political and the character development, doesn't jibe well with the magical events that bookend the witch's biography. It's difficult to resist the comparison with The Iron Dragon's Daughter, a novel which explored the dark places in storyland, and found their organic connection to the human version. Swanwick was able to find that frightening spot where the evil in our hearts is indistinguishable from the corruption of society. Maguire has them as two unrelated things, and his story is the weaker for it.
Elphaba (it works better as Elphie--the witch part gets added late) is the only character forced to embody both of these things, and it it makes her a different person in different sections. She's introduced under deep omens, born green-skinned and shark-toothed, with an innately dark and violent disposition. (She begins her life with a memorable bite!) But in the space between her first word ("horrors") and her first college roommate, the weight of the occult is lifted. Elphaba the student is an intelligent, caustic little atheist. She has no soul, she believes, but she's got character to spare, and she's got a moral sense, whether she acknowledges one or not. Even green, she's the sort of self-possessed, interesting girl that any boy who was watching wishes, later in life, that they could have possibly understood. (Yes, there are a couple of boys in the story who don't know they are in love with her.) For a while, she lives up to the appealing versions of wickedness. She rebels against the smothering and manipulative school hierarchy, becomes a subversive for the cause of oppressed peoples, takes a lover and loses him in the political turmoil created by the usurping wizard. Though Ozzie politics seems a silly notion at first, Maguire makes them real by viewing it through the small and convincing context of individual points of view. He takes ineffective missionaries, bored housewives, misfit students, horrid children and makes them all individually real enough to add up to a quality setting. There are horrors, but his people are people, and I cared about them. I'm not going to tell you it wasn't a good read.
These vignettes are Maguire's real strength, honest and convincing, but peppered in there are vague hints of greater powers and grand designs that actually diminish any transformations that come through character. You could paint Elphaba's development as a quest to find a moral center despite her atheism and despite her oddness--this is devalued if she's deprived of her will, or if she really is uniquely soulless. (There are better ways to mix determinism with character than dumping the former on the latter.) She can't avoid the events of Baum's source book any more than she can her secret mystical assignments, but the novel Wicked is hardly set up to make them look inevitable (the necessity of picking up plot coupons--bees and monkeys and shoes and so forth--got tedious by the end too). Her well-known cackling madness, quite at odds with the inwardly struggling character portrayed up to that point, is presented as an unnecessarily comical Lady MacBeth style decompression, and it's not earned. If indeed her end was imposed by greater forces, then let her exit with grace, or with tragedy, or with middle finger extended--those are things her character deserved. Maguire's wicked witch really was misunderstood. And robbed.