Gregory Maguire has been making a name for himself writing stories based on other peoples stories from alternate perspective. Wicked was his first of this genre I believe. The book retells L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz through the eyes of the Wicked Witch of the West. Maguire's stated purpose in doing so is to explore the nature of evil.
I think he fell down in that respect. Instead of Elphaba being evil, in this story she is messed up and misunderstood. In this story her evil acts are given a version that is not so evil. While I certainly believe that many acts described as evil can, from another perspective, be seen as something other than works of the devil. But that hardly tells a reader much about evil itself. I was kind of hoping for something more along the lines of Monster a recent movie that shows how Aileen Wuornos became the nation's first famous female serial killer. The movie never backed away from her actions as being wrong, bad, and monstrous. Aileen was still a monster, though they showed us how she got that way. Wicked instead reveals the Witch's actions and misunderstandings.
The book was fun though. Given that we aren't going to learn much about evil itself, it's nice to see an adult version of the same story. Maguire goes to great lengths to give background and to make the Witch a real person. He also turns Oz from a fairy-tale land into one where real, if odd, characters live. The Wizard is no longer a benevolent ruler. Instead he's a usurper who persecutes intelligent Animals. Munchkinland is nearly in a state of revolt and the Wizard has subjugated Quadling country. The Witch has an affair with a married prince of the Vinkus. She attends school with Glinda, who is revealedas a petty schoolmate.
Most of the story occurs long before Dorothy arrives in Oz. Only at the end do we start to see how all the threads tie together to culminate in the attack on Dorothy after Dorothy's house lands on Elphaba's sister. In the original Wizard story, the Wicked Witch of the East is merely a footnote, the one the house lands on. In this story, we find out why the Munchkinlanders are joyful about her demise. And joyful they are, despite the fact that they installed her as ruler to start. The story explains the shoes. The story explains why Dorothy, a good yet not-so-naive girl (in this story at least), would kill someone.
I like the book. It's definitely worth reading, though I do think it went long and overly involved for what it actually ended up accomplishing. In the end though, if you aren't interested in seeing old stories through new eyes, don't bother with this book. It's central goal remains unfulfilled. But at least it plays with our conceptions of who the Oz characters were. And especially compared with Orson Card's recent books retelling his famous stories from alternate characters perspectives, this one delivers on that.