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Gregory Maguire – Mirror, Mirror

November 21, 2008

139. Mirror, Mirror by Gregory Maguire (2003)

Read By: John McDonough, with Kate Forbes, Barbara Rosenblat, and Richard Ferrone
Length: 9h 05m (320 pages)

Genre: Fantasy; Historical Fiction

Started: 28 October 2008
Finished: 04 November 2008

Snow White, evil queen,
find their place in history.
What about the dwarves?

Summary: Bianca de Nevada (literally, “white of snow”) is the only daughter of Don Vincente de Nevada, a Spanish-descended nobleman who lives in the Tuscan hills on his estate of Montefiore. Her mother died in childbirth, and she has grown up isolated on her father’s estate, with only her father, the priest, a cook, and the other servants for company. When Bianca is young, her father finds a large mirror sunk in the lake on their property. Shortly thereafter, their estate is descended upon by the Borgias, who, under the guise of hospitality, exert their power and influence to change the lives of the de Nevadas. Cesare Borgia sends Don Vincente on an errand to fetch him a relic which is said to be a branch from the original Tree of Knowledge. Unable to refuse, Don Vincente leaves his home and daughter, with the promise that Lucrezia will care for them.

As Don Vincente’s errand turns into years of absence, it’s unsurprising that Lucrezia sets herself up as the de facto mistress of Montefiore. While this arrangement is certainly unpleasant for Bianca, it doesn’t become truly dangerous until Cesare visits his sister. Jealous of the attention her brother (and erstwhile lover) is paying to young Bianca, Lucrezia orders the girl to be taken into the woods and killed. Of course, the young hunter tasked with the murder cannot carry it out, and Bianca finds herself abandoned in the woods – and eventually under the care of seven dwarves. The dwarves are not small humans, but rather sons of the earth and stones, called from their slow reverie into sentience by Bianca’s presence and attention. As she lives and grows with them, she discovers that they too have lost something: their eighth brother, who had their magic mirror.

Review: Mirror, Mirror is a retelling twice over: first, and most obviously, it’s a retelling of Snow White in a historical perspective. However, it’s also a re-imagining of part of the life story of Lucrezia Borgia, a figure known to most people as a the leading lady of corrupt and murderous Machiavellian politics. What Gregory Maguire does so well in Mirror, Mirror is to synthesize the two, mixing historical fiction with magical realism to create a historical context and story that seem entirely plausible as the source from which the fairy tale sprung.

The blend of fantasy and historical fiction in this book can work both for and against it, and the outcome will likely depend on how the reader approaches it. I went into it expecting a standard fairy-tale retelling (“some random girl living in the European woods in the middle ages”), and so I was pleased to find the traditional fairy-tale elements anchored in actual history. On the other hand, it was so well anchored in actual history that it reads as straight-up historical fiction for half of the story (until Bianca encounters the dwarves), which meant it was somewhat disconcerting when all of a sudden there’s a bit about boulders turning into men or enchanted comas or magic mirrors.

The writing is similar to Maguire’s other books – well-done, with some lovely bits full of poetic imagery, particularly in the interludes between chapters. There are parts that get carried away with their own writing, but it’s always in service of the story, and Maguire doesn’t wind up letting his own cleverness get in the way of his story nearly as much as he did in Wicked. Still, there was nothing in either the writing or the story that really ever grabbed me. The characters were interesting but never inspired any emotional attachment or warmth; likewise, it was interesting to see how the various fairy-tale elements emerged in his plot, but never truly suspenseful. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I think this book would be best for fans of Gregory Maguire or re-imagined fairy tales in general, or for historical fiction readers who are willing to try a historical fiction with fantastical elements without fully committing to a fantasy novel. As for me, intellectually I can admire what Maguire’s done in Mirror, Mirror, but it just lacked the heart needed for me to really get fully involved.

This review was originally published at SF Site.

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First Line: From the arable river lands to the south, the approach to Montefiore appears a sequence of relaxed hills.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2008 12:24 am

    I never moved beyond Wicked, but do you think he’s taking the whole re-telling of fairy tales/fables too far? Is it time to move out of this niche he’s made for himself?

  2. November 21, 2008 8:37 am

    My sister loves Gregory Maguire’s work, but I’ve never been able to get into it.

  3. November 21, 2008 9:02 am

    I read this quite a while back. I remember that I liked the book, but I got lost with the whole stones/dwarves thing. This is another one I planned on coming back to sometime in the future. My favorite Maguire novel so far has been “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister”.


  4. November 21, 2008 9:21 am

    I tried to read this one and didn’t get far. Hmm, maybe fairy tails just aren’t for me. Is 9 hours 5 minutes how long it took you to read the book? That’s a funny way to refer to the length; I like.

  5. November 21, 2008 10:38 am

    softdrink – That’s a tough question, because I have no basis of judging how he’d do outside his niche. He’s certainly quite creative, but I wonder how he’d do creating from scratch, without the known jumping-off point.

    bermudaonion – My overall opinion of Gregory Maguire’s work is that it’s not a bad way to spend my time, but I never really love it. Actually, I think my favorite book of his is Leaping Beauty, which is (surprise!) more fairy-tale retellings (this time featuring animals instead of people), but in short story form, and geared towards kids.

    Lezlie – I’ve got Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister on my TBR pile, so that’s good to hear!

    Nancy – Well, 9h 5m is how long it took to have the book read to me, since it was an audiobook. :)

  6. November 21, 2008 6:10 pm

    I love the fairy tale re-tellings but I tried Wicked and found it so dry that I kept setting it aside. Maybe Maguire would be more enjoyable for me on audio.

  7. November 22, 2008 12:03 am

    I have this book but haven’t read it yet. I’ve been looking forward to it.

  8. November 22, 2008 4:04 pm

    “….mixing historical fiction with magical realism to create a historical context and story that seem entirely plausible as the source from which the fairy tale sprung.”

    I love like the sound of this, but at the same time I can see how it could work against it. I really liked everything I’ve read by Maguire so far, though. I’ll get to this one eventually, hopefully at some point next year.

  9. November 22, 2008 11:21 pm

    The only Maguire book I’ve read is Wicked, which I really enjoyed. I have Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister on the shelf, but it keeps getting pushed back for other stuff. I’ll have to keep my eye out for this one.

  10. November 23, 2008 9:38 am

    I love reimagined fairy tales, but this one was just too creepy and dead to me.

  11. November 23, 2008 6:55 pm

    I have this book. After I read Wicked (before it was a musical) I got hooked on his books and read The Ugly Step-sister too. I can’t say I really loved Mirror Mirror as much as I wanted to. I might liked it better if I re-read it now… or whenever I can clear out some of these other books!

  12. November 24, 2008 9:16 am

    Joanne – Wicked does tend to get a little (a lot!) rambly in the middle about Ozian politics and religion. Audio might work for you, or maybe one of his shorter books (or both?)

    Natasha – I hope you enjoy it!

    Nymeth – I think part of my issue with this book was the precise mixture of historical fiction and fantasy he chose. I felt like he either needed to go whole-hog one way or another: either work the magical realism into the first half of the story, or find another less-fantastical explanation for the dwarves.

    Trish – I’m having exactly the same issue with Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. I think it’s one of the oldest books on my TBR pile in terms of when I got it, but it just never seems to work its way to the top of the pile.

    Lenore – I didn’t find it particularly creepy, but I do see where you’re getting the “dead” from.

    Jen – Those pesky “other books”, always getting in the way! :)

  13. November 27, 2008 9:59 pm

    I loved *Wicked* (read it before the musical), even the political bits. I’ve also read *What the Dickens* which is a little different – he tells the “true” story of the tooth fairy, so not a re-telling of a traditional fairy tale … I’ll put *Mirror Mirror* on my long term wish list.

  14. November 29, 2008 10:19 am

    Dawn – I was in a Borders on Wednesday and saw What the Dickens on the shelf. First I’d heard of it, and it was only by the grace of the extreme guilt I feel whenever I think about the size of my TBR pile that I was able to walk out of there without buying it for myself.

  15. Johanna permalink
    February 26, 2009 6:12 am

    This review has gotten me interested enough in adding this book in my next month’s book budget. Read Wicked and thoroughly enjoyed it. Now, I’m very interested in how he handles Lucrecia Borgia as the evil stepmother in this Snow White story.


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