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Mirror Mirror

Gregory Maguire

Regan Books/HarperCollins

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-060-39384-X

Publication Date: 10-14-2003

280 Pages; $24.95

Date Reviewed: 10-27-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003



Fantasy, General Fiction, Horror


Every book is a re-invention of the world into words. But authors who write about what has already been written face a special challenge. It's easy enough to pull a character out of reality, or out of another piece of fiction, and plop that character into a new fiction. But too often, that character sis simply a name set forth upon a page, with no organic growth within the new piece of fiction. Historical and meta-fictional novels can parade their historical and fictional characters with the same depth accorded to celebrities on the newspapers' gossip pages. They become walk-on parts, stunt casting that distracts the reader from the reality of the novel at hand. This doesn't have to happen. Gregory Maguire's 'Mirror Mirror' is one of the purest and most organic fantasies I've read this year, and there's not a single character who isn't either a historical figure or a figure from some previous fictional work. Maguire makes everything in 'Mirror Mirror' his own by careful prose, remarkable plotting and sly character development. If you'd never seen any version of 'Snow White', or never heard about the Borgias, you'd never suspect how much of Maguire's creation is the work of others remade by a master writer. But since most of us have heard of Snow White, the Borgias and a host of other characters and myths that Maguire riffs from, 'Mirror Mirror' is much more than a carefully textured fantasy. The references are as carefully managed as the characters. The result is a work of orchestral fiction, where layers and themes develop to create a work that's deeply enjoyable on multiple levels.

I was a more than bit skeptical going in, even though the premise seems quite clever from initial examination. It's 1502, and Bianca de Nevada lives in a remote faming household between Tuscany and Umbria. Her world with her father is idyllic until the Borgias arrive. Cesare Borgia sends her father, Vicente, on what is likely to be a fool's quest. Vicente is to obtain a branch bearing three still-living apples from the Tree of Knowledge that grew in the Garden of Eden. Cesare's sister, Lucrezia Borgia, will ensure that Bianca comes to no harm.

Maguire ensures that the novel lives far beyond the promise of its premise by writing extremely well. The novel begins with a curious bit of prose poetry that's as mysterious and beguiling as the wonderful woodcut-style illustrations provided by Douglas Smith. Be assured that poem and the others you'll find are all borne out by the novel. 'Mirror Mirror' is somewhat diffuse in its execution. The story is told by a number of characters, primarily Vicente, Bianca, and Lucrezia, but also by the dwarves themselves. The dwarves are Maguire's finest creation here with strong references to Arthur Machen's classic tale 'The White People'. But each character is carefully developed in unexpected directions. Maguire is able to effortlessly create lots of room within the myths and archetypes he appropriates to surprise the reader.

But 'Mirror Mirror' would be nothing if it were not about something beyond the revision and re-imagination of other writer's work. Not surprisingly, 'Mirror Mirror' is about self-definition and the definition of the world around us. In Maguire's Italy of the 16th century, the world is slowly being re-written by the rational machinations of humans, exemplified by the aggressive evil of the Borgias. He uses sparse, evocative prose to create a world before that which we now live in. Maguire's pre-industrial, pre-rational world is slippery, supernatural, infused with magic and defined by beliefs. It's a world in which trees that fall in empty forests make no sound. The magic of creation hangs heavy over Maguire's Edenic idyll, slowing thought, slowing time itself. The hurry-up of humanity has yet to overpower the simplicity of that from which humanity sprang forth.

The passing of magic is a common theme in fantasy, and regular readers of fantasy will recognize that theme here. But Maguire's temporal orientation and his simple, elegant prose elude expectations. He's also created an incredibly tight plot, yet that plot doesn't overpower the simplicity of his story or his writing. Instead, every sentence feels illuminated by the references and myths he brings to bear. There's a veritable iceberg's worth of history and culture hidden within this short novel, and readers can be thankful that Maguire managed to leave most of it out. Instead he lets his story and his characters do the talking.

Maguire does an excellent job differentiating between the storytellers and the stories told. The most vibrant is Lucrezia, who positively bursts with selfish intentions. Bianca and the dwarves are a counterpoint to Lucrezia's hyperactive plans and voracious appetites. Those who think that the fairy-tale basis makes this suitable reading for pre-teens need to reconsider. The Borgia predilections for incest and murder graphically conveyed though not portrayed. Maguire finds the truly disturbing aspects of the myths and fairy tales for today's audience.

Those expecting to find that Vicente will prove to be the moral center of the novel will find themselves a bit at sea. Though he's the character whose story is told first, he's not the most important nor is he the strongest character. Maguire does much better with the dwarves, truly alien creations from an age that humans cannot quite comprehend.

That Maguire can evade so many expectations so expertly is to his credit. A novel that pulls from the readers' memories of so many works on so many levels treads a dangerous path. Maguire's work will win over readers of genre fantasy fiction with ease. His writing skills are more than up to the task he sets for himself. Moreover, he's already brought a large mainstream audience to the world of fantasy fiction. Whether you're a reader who skips straight to the SF&F shelves, the aisles of trade-paperbacked literary fiction or one who never makes it past the bestsellers, Maguire is likely to satisfy your reading needs. His great accomplishment is not the re-invention of fairy tales, but rather the re-invention of fantasy as fiction and the re-invention of fiction as fantasy. As time accelerates, we need our fantasies to slow it down. Maguire makes every word worth the wait.