Now, I like a good postmodern conflation of fairy tales and historical settings as much as the next person, so I was pleased to hear that Gregory Maguire was returning to form in his new book, Mirror Mirror. Having begun with the delightful Wicked (a retelling of The Wizard of Oz from the Wicked Witch of the West’s point of view) and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (the Cinderella tale, set in seventeenth-century Holland), Maguire abandoned his formula with the disastrous Lost, a baffling present-day supernatural thriller suffocated by its own fog of obscurity. This new book, a retelling of the Snow White story in Renaissance Italy, promised to be a rollicking return to the good old days; even the jacket copy pointedly hyped it as “in the evocative style of Maguire’s earlier novels” – as opposed to the incomprehensible style of his most recent one, I suppose.
Bianca de Nevada is the young daughter of a Spanish farmer in rural Tuscany. Vicente de Nevada wishes only to live quietly on his country estate, unnoticed by the armies that march past with increasing frequency, and, for a while, he does. But at last he receives a visit from Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, two of the most ruthless and amoral members of a family known for its love of poison. Hampered by his military obligations, Cesare forces Vicente to go on an errand for him: to travel across the world and recover the sole surviving branch of the Tree of Knowledge, with its three enchanted apples. If Vicente fails, he will forfeit not only his farm, but his beloved daughter. Deeply suspicious but with no alternative, Vicente agrees with heavy heart, and charges Lucrezia to look after Bianca as best she can. But Lucrezia’s fading beauty makes her violently jealous of the young and breathtaking Bianca, and her envy moves her to hatch a murderous plan.
Meanwhile, a strange thing is happening elsewhere on the farm: eight sentient lumps of rock, for whom time passes so slowly that human lives flicker by in a moment, are awakening. Crafting themselves a mirror of glass coated in quicksilver, the lumps learn what it is to gaze, and to be gazed upon. Inspired by this new self-awareness, their thoughts speed up to a nearly human rate, and the effort of joining the human world has an anthropomorphizing effect on them. One follows Vicente to aid him on his quest; the other seven remain and wait; and the stage is set for the fairy tale to begin – though not in the way you’re expecting.
As usual, Maguire invents an amusing conceit to base his retelling on, although this one doesn’t follow the original quite as closely: Snow White isn’t the daughter of a queen, nor is Lucrezia a wicked stepmother per se, and Vicente has a much larger role (albeit one defined primarily by his absence) than his royal counterpart in the fairy tale. The biggest departure from the Grimms’s version, though, is the dwarves: here, they’re creepy stone golems who inhabit a malleable reality that can be willed into existence. Though they become more human via contact with the human world, they never quite turn into cheerful, singing gnomes, always retaining their wild, supernatural strangeness. Ultimately, though, their character development is a mystery. Is it a play on the birth of human consciousness? Are the dwarves intended as a foil to the monstrous Borgias, to pose the question of what really constitutes humanity? Or did Maguire simply have some leftovers from whatever he was smoking when he penned Lost?
Although none of his subsequent works has duplicated the absorbing detail, biting social commentary and deft comic touch of Wicked, Maguire’s latest is nonetheless an entertaining addition to his clever interpretations of familiar tales. The story is filled with compelling description and vividly imagined scenes, and minor characters – the hunter, the elderly cook, the lazy priest – are either invented from whole cloth or richly elaborated and developed in ways the original fairy tale never explored. Inventive, imaginative, and absorbing, Mirror Mirror contains strange reflections, but is sure to catch your eye.