Until a couple of months ago, I hadn’t read Wicked. I haven’t seen the musical, either, which apparently differs quite a bit from the book. When I picked up Wicked, I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I got – and that was a delightful surprise.

Gregory Maguire’s Oz is not the Oz we all know from the movie (and let’s face it, that’s our point of reference – how many of us have slogged through L. Frank Baum’s original series?), and Wicked is definitely not a light little fantasy. It’s dark and deep, philosophical and theological, and definitely not a kids’ book.

Maguire has crafted a complex, detailed Oz with myriad cultures, mythologies and geographies; populated it with a wide range of characters and histories; created complex, layered plots; and dropped in some magic to bring it all together. His Oz envelops a reader in a feast for the senses and for the mind.

Wicked at heart was the story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West – everything that happens in The Wizard of Oz happens in Wicked, just for different reasons and with different results. The next book in the series, Son of a Witch, was the story of her son, Liir; A Lion Among Men followed, telling the story of Brrr, better known as the Cowardly Lion.

Out of Oz is the final book in the series, and in it we meet Rain, Liir’s daughter, born as green as her grandmother Elphaba. For her own protection, she’s been growing up in ignorance of her parentage and with her skin under a disguise spell, serving as a member of Glinda’s household staff. Calling her an odd child is an understatement, and one has to be really different in Oz to qualify as “odd.”

Liir and Brrr play key roles in this book, and Dorothy returns – this time deposited in Oz by the San Francisco earthquake and facing trial in Munchkinland for the murder of the Wicked Witch of the East. So much happens in Out of Oz that it’s impossible to summarize. Most revolves around an impending war between Oz and Munchkinland, and an ancient magical book called the Grimmerie, which is passed about like a hot potato to keep it from falling into the wrong hands.

The plot lines bob and weave, split and rejoin, and finally converge to tie up not just these characters but the entire series. Maguire’s prose is dense, metaphor-laden, even old-fashioned: The sentence structure and the level of detail are reminiscent of literature we now call “classics.” He uses a wide range of vocabulary – abstract and direct, archaic and modern, flowery and blunt – and often waxes philosophical.

An example: “Why does the day with the brightest blue sky come tagged with a hint of foreboding? Maybe it’s only the ordinary knowledge of transience – all comes to dust, to rot, to rust, to moth. That sort of thing. Or maybe it’s that beauty itself is invisible to mortal eyes unless it’s accompanied by some sickly sweet eschatological stink.”

If you haven’t read the first three books, there are plenty of explainers in Out of Oz to fill you in on the background, which makes the story a bit clunky in spots if you’ve recently read the others, but provides a nice refresher if it’s been a while. Regardless, this isn’t the book to start with: It’s the book to end with.

© 2011 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.