Mirror Mirror - Gregory Maguire
Everywhere you look in London these days there are posters for Wicked, the new musical based on Maguire's novel of the same name, so he must be doing all right for himself. I read that book a few years ago, along with his Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, and enjoyed both - the retelling of fairy tales is a theme I generally like very much. Mirror Mirror is, not surprisingly, his take on the Snow White story, setting it in rural Umbria at the time of the Borgias. One of the darker traditional fairy tales, this has been successfully adapted many times before, notably in Tanith Lee's Red as Blood or the 1997 film Snow White: A Tale of Terror - Maguire had a lot to live up to, and unfortunately this book falls very flat in comparison.
One of the trickiest aspects of translating Snow White into the real world is finding a place for the dwarfs. Unlike Cinderella's pumpkin, they're an essential part of the story, and a hard one to replace in a non-fairytale context. Maguire has got round this by introducing a slight air of magical realism into his historical-fiction setting. There are hints of dragons and unicorns alongside the Papal politics and the deadly rivalry between the Florentine and Roman families, which sets the scene for the dwarfs to come in as animate rocks trying to be human. I'm not a particular fan of magical realism anyway, and I found this quite an uncomfortable mix - the mystical elements ended up looking rather contrived, and jarred unpleasantly with the real-world details.
The writing style doesn't help - it's the Historical Fiction Standard of stilted and formal faux-archaic-speak, which probably qualifies this as Literature but doesn't make the story any more engaging. There's the odd whimsical moment, particularly the exchanges between the priest and the old pagan cook, that add a welcome touch of Jack Vance to the proceedings, but mostly it's just tiresome. Bianca, the Snow White of the piece, is too pure and innocent to be even slightly interesting; Lucrezia Borgia (as Wicked Stepmother) has more depth but is still more of a cartoon villainess. Few of the characters' motivations are particularly convincing.
It's a very pretty book, printed in interesting fonts with nice woodcut illustrations throughout, but it was just so boring. The Snow White story has been done so much better by so many people; I wouldn't bother with this at all.