Rachel Cosgrove Payes refused to let anyone so much as look at her manuscript for The Wicked Witch of Oz until it was a book. Well, the International Wizard of Oz Club finally offered to publish it in 1993, just as they had published two books by Thompson and another Oz book by the next Royal Historian. This time, however, they released it in a different form. Those books were oversized paperbacks (there was a limited run of hardcovers, too), with limited illustrations by Dick Martin, who had passed away in 1990.
However, Oz fans didn't like the paperbacks. Those with collections of older Oz books (or, at 1993, those collecting the ongoing reprints by Books of Wonder) would have to resort to a different format.
Not so with Wicked Witch. It was printed in hardcover, with proper typefaces and page layouts to create an attractive book. It was also just as tall as the original Oz books, though it wasn't as wide. (Page margins had shrunk in the last forty years.) Also on board was Eric Shanower, willing to lend his illustration services not just to the Club, but also to Rachel as her second Oz book finally saw print. I'll get to the illustrations later, but they were definitely a big change from Dick Martin's work.
Singra, the Wicked Witch of the South, awakens from a hundred year sleep that Glinda put her under. Cosgrove then describes the morning of a Wicked Witch, and while Singra doesn't do anything particularly evil, it's clear by her living habits that she isn't the nicest witch. She decides to find out from her Musical Magical Snuff Box how her cousins, the Wicked Witches of the East and West are. Boy, is she in for a surprise when she is informed that Dorothy did away with them! She will have to work out some plan to deal with Dorothy...
And in case you're thinking Glinda will read of this in the Book of Records, she won't. She's just left on a vacation to Ix that Ozma insisted she take. The Scarecrow will be going to Glinda's to keep an eye on the Book, but he doesn't leave until after Singra has begun her plans. Which is too bad, because she's determined to turn Dorothy into a piece of cheese, and she needs two things to complete it: some red powder that only Glinda has, and straw from a live man's body. And there's only one live man in Oz who has straw in his body.
The Scarecrow reads in the Book of Records that Singra stole the powder and goes to investigate the magic room, but is caught by Singra, who steals some of his straw, then ties him up and exits, cheerfully informing Glinda's servants that the Scarecrow doesn't want to be disturbed. She hurries back to her hut and completes her potion, which she then takes to the Emerald City. Upon reaching the Palace, she is met by Percy, the Personality Kid, or rather, the giant rat from Hidden Valley. He tells her that Dorothy is around the corner in the gardens, so Singra follows his directions, and finds a girl there and gives her the potion, telling her it is Ozade. Dorothy is horrified to see Trot turn into a piece of green cheese! Realizing her mistake, Singra takes the cheese with her anyway.
Dorothy and Percy are on the chase, but cannot overtake Singra, given they have only the scent of the cheese to go by. And even worse, in classic Oz book style, strange people delay them. There's a rubber band, a group of men made of rubber who play music.
Dorothy and Percy make a new friend and companion in Leon the Neon, a man who was experimenting with neon tubing when he had an accident and became a human neon sign. This is Cosgrove's first real "grotesque" character, and one of the few in the Oz series. Baum created several, but Thompson only had Handy Mandy (Grampa and Kuma Party are close seconds, though). and Neill didn't have any.
When Dorothy and Percy stop to get some honey, bees capture the trio and force them to slave away for them. They are sealed away in beeswax cells, but Percy manages to use his teeth to get them out, and they make a good escape. But their troubles are far from over. Next they encounter hummingbirds that offer them nectar to drink, but it gives Percy and Dorothy wings, making them fly high in the air. The wings vanish after a time, because one must continue drinking nectar to maintain them, and Dorothy and Percy can't. However, they did see a hut where they decide they can go to ask for directions.
The hut turns out to be Singra's, and she has woven a net to cast on Dorothy to turn her to stone. And, as fate would have it, Dorothy was the one who went to the door. Percy and Leon are by Singra's ink well, when Percy smells cheese, so they pull up the bucket and find Trot in her enchanted form. Fortunately, Percy knows not to eat it. Leon goes to ask Singra the way to the Emerald City to see if Dorothy is all right, but sees the statue. Singra gives him a ransom letter to take to Ozma.
Betsy Bobbin has grown concerned over not seeing Dorothy or Trot for a couple of days. Ozma thinks they may be visiting the Scarecrow or the Tin Woodman, but when the Tin Woodman arrives without having seen either, Ozma checks the Magic Picture and sees Percy and Leon carrying a piece of cheese, running back to the Emerald City, the Scarecrow, tied up in Glinda's workshop, and Dorothy turned into a stone statue in Singra's hut. Dorothy is brought to the Emerald City by Magic Belt, and the Wizard can't find a way to restore her, so he goes to Glinda's with Betsy, Ozma, and the Tin Woodman, where they rescue the Scarecrow and read about Singra in the Book of Records. Along the way back to the Emerald City, they overtake Percy and Leon. Ozma reads the letter, seeing that it demands that Dorothy and Trot will remain transformed if they do not make her the Witch of the South, taking over from Glinda.
While everyone is away at Glinda's, Jellia cleans the room Dorothy is in, sadly noting the fate of this beloved girl. She notices Singra's net, which looks like a spider web. She attempts to dust it off, but that doesn't work, so she tries removing it, and it comes off easily, restoring Dorothy.
The Magic Belt is used to bring Singra to the Emerald City before Ozma, and she is forced to restore Trot. Ozma then has her drink the Water of Oblivion (it was revealed earlier that she un-courteously saved the life of a water nymph, who made her "impervious" to water, but apparently, it has a normal effect if it is drunk), then she is sent to sleep, having forgotten all her magic and wickedness, for another hundred years.
Many fans consider Wicked Witch better than Hidden Valley, and I must agree. There is a tighter plot that is much more exciting, even if we do have some little stops along the way. Rachel Cosgrove Payes uses the classic Oz characters in ways that are true to their characters, and Percy, still as headstrong and wisecracking as ever, really comes into his own here. (It seems at one point, the book was called Percy in Oz.)
But the real star is the Wicked Witch herself, Singra! She is a true, out and out villain, but yet, you enjoy reading about her. You don't want her to win, of course, but her side of the story is so deliciously wicked, it's fun to read, and you're a little sorry that it's over when you reach the end.
Now, I can't help but mention Eric Shanower's illustrations. Unlike many previous Oz books, The Wicked Witch of Oz is lavishly illustrated. Any two-page spread has an illustration. This definitely makes the book more attractive than Hidden Valley. And, unlike some illustrators who simplify their designs for book-length illustration jobs, Shanower illustrates in his regular style consistently.
So, if anyone had doubted Rachel Cosgrove Payes' claim to be a Royal Historian with Hidden Valley, she more than made up for it with Wicked Witch. If only Reilly & Lee hadn't turned this one down, who knows if the Oz series may have actually picked up again?
And we're not done with her yet!