Freewheeling, earthy, and inventive, Gregory Maguire's most popular novels are built on a narrative gimmick that promises an ever-expandable franchise of books, movies, and crowd-pleasing Broadway musicals: Maguire writes irreverent adult versions of children's classics that are also good yarns in their own right. His rollicking 1995 cult hit, ''Wicked'' (the basis for a musical that opens this month on the Great White Way), was a sympathetic biography of Oz's reviled Wicked Witch of the West. In 1999's ''Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister,'' he reworked ''Cinderella'' by putting the spotlight on her smarter, pluckier stepsibling.
Although it is full of the same fine, highflown writing and imaginative flourishes as his first two efforts, Mirror Mirror, Maguire's attempt to rewrite ''Snow White,'' lacks both the narrative drive of his previous books and the startling bite of the original fairy tale.
Once again, Maguire sets a nursery standard against an evocative historical backdrop and gussies it up with a few R-rated story lines. Pretty, pale Bianca de Nevada is living peacefully on a Tuscan farm with her widowed father circa 1500 when the ruthless warlord Cesare Borgia (the real-life model for Machiavelli's Prince) and his sister/lover Lucrezia turn up. In one of several pretentious and mystifying subplots, Cesare sends Bianca's father away to retrieve a branch from the Tree of Knowledge, whereupon Lucrezia becomes Bianca's guardian. Lucrezia promises to teach her new charge ''the womanly arts of conversation, negotiation, deception,'' but when Cesare pays too much attention to Bianca, Lucrezia tells a hunter to take the girl into the forest and cut out her heart.
The Grimm Brothers' ''Snow White,'' first published in 1812, was a fierce, dark, and matter-of-fact little fiction about the deadly force of female jealousy. Though Disney's 1937 adaptation counts as one of the most saccharine films ever made, the aging queen's hatred for the singing black-haired maiden came through in vivid Technicolor.
This powerful central chord never sounds in ''Mirror Mirror.'' Lucrezia's decision to murder Bianca seems more a passing whim than a primal urge -- she's not so much obsessed with Bianca's beauty as fleetingly annoyed. Big, unwieldy human emotions have been replaced with puzzling sexual portents: Snow White menstruates; her housekeeper once copulated with a squid; the hunter has had a quickie with a unicorn.
Moreover, ''Mirror Mirror'' often seems obscure for the sake of obscurity. You could read the novel twice over and still not figure out what's going on with the seven dwarfs -- weird, proto-human creatures with cloven hooves who can occasionally burrow through rock. Or are they made of rock? Are they even real? Are they symbols? If so, of what? These are an awful lot of questions to have to ask about the seven dwarfs, and in this murky fantasy, the magical mirror never answers.