Who's the fairest one of all?

This isn't your granddaughter's Snow White

Once upon a time, there was a writer who spun fairy tales into novels for adults. The first time, he retold the story of the Wicked Witch of the West. A very important man named John Updike said, "This is an amazing novel," and so it became a bestseller. Then he retold the story of Cinderella, and it became a bestseller, too. Now he has done it again with Snow White, and it's clear that he will live happily ever after - and so will his readers.

Confession: I'm a late victim of Gregory Maguire's magic. After reading thousands of wit-free pages of "Harry Potter" to my girls, I thought the prospect of fairy tales for adults sounded Grimm, indeed. But now having ventured into Maguire's canon, I can stare into his beady eyes and say, "My, what good stories you tell."

"Mirror Mirror," his latest, transports Snow White and the seven dwarfs to 16th-century Italy, a time and place caught here by Maguire in all its fantastical flux. The city states are clashing into new alliances, the Roman Catholic Church is more depraved than anything that heretic in Wittenberg could imagine, and Columbus's discovery of the New World "means that the whole planet goes into a fierce wobble."

Gentle Vicente and his young daughter, Bianca, live on a mountaintop farm, far from any of these disruptions. Their idyllic days on a windswept perch are spiced only with the comedy of a sarcastic priest and a cantankerous cook, who retains her job by refusing to leave when fired.

All that changes with the arrival of Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, the most deliciously wicked pair of siblings (and lovers!) in Renaissance history. As the children of Pope Alexandre VI, they move about Italy with impunity, fighting, poisoning, seducing, and generally ruining the lives of everyone around them.

Maguire knows just how to mix a villain's character with equal parts menace and absurdity. Cesare, the reputed model for Machiavelli's "The Prince," rides up to Vicente's humble farm and dismounts "as if he were in the act of being cast already as his own statue."

He's a creep who thinks of morning mass as "a good way to start a day of bloody bullying." He sighs wistfully, "Rape and plunder and extortion, murder and mayhem. Quite a party."

Lucrezia is the perfect helpmate for him. Maguire takes us back into this deadly woman's ghastly childhood, laying out the curriculum of sin she studied so enthusiastically. "We're a practical family," she explains. "We're known for our sensible alliances and our deft way with poison." In one of her typically imperial moments, she stares down a murderer and then announces, "I must see to my hair."

After all these years of carefully maintained obscurity, Vicente finds himself drafted into one of Cesare's insanely superstitious plans: He must leave his daughter to search for a bough of the Tree of Knowledge, still bearing three apples from the Garden of Eden. During the many years of his absence, Bianca flits about cautiously just out of reach of her de facto stepmother, Lucrezia, who grows increasingly jealous of her brother's lecherous interest in the girl.

As you can see, Maguire moves around the library like a bargain shopper, nabbing whatever stories interest him. Part of the fun here is the way he fulfills but then thwarts expectations about where he's going next, crisscrossing well-worn details of Snow White with threads of history and myth in a weave that's entirely his own design.

For instance, when Bianca flees through the forest to escape Lucrezia's murderous jealousy, she ends up in the company of dwarfs, but forget the cuddly, avuncular figures from Disney's 1937 classic. Maguire's dwarfs are as old as stones. In fact, they're sentient boulders, geological beings who watch and wait, struggling to apprehend the quickened ways of humans.

They're captivatingly alien. With no sense of individuality, they speak plurally, mouths and appendages fading in and out of the rock. Missing their eighth brother, the seven remaining dwarfs introduce themselves with a strange, bewildered recognition of their newly discovered fragmentation: "It wasn't 7 who was abandoned, nor any other one of us. It was the all of us, and then we learned to count to seven, and saw that we ought to have been able to count to the next number up, the seven plus one. But we couldn't, for that one was gone. In his absence, we remembered once again our incompleteness."

Born into self-consciousness in the moment they name themselves for Bianca, the dwarfs seem like "opinionated rocks" to her, but together they form a contented home. Until, of course, Lucrezia tracks her down again, armed with that poison apple.

Entertaining as all this is, it's not child's play. In the best sense, "Mirror Mirror" is a novel for adults that unearths our buried fascination with the primal fears and truths fairy tales contain.

Through this forest of wry, sometimes bawdy humor, Maguire leaves a trail of profound reflections on the nature of identity, the persistence of love, the self-destruction of evil. Observing the last unicorn in the forest, the narrator laments, "There was no place for much mystery in the world anymore," but Maguire is busy making room for it.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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