Living on a sixteenth century Tuscan farm, five-year-old Bianca de Nevada, her widowed father Vicente, their cook Primavera, and priest Fra Ludovico enjoy a simple life. But their idyllic existence takes a turn for the worse when dissolute Cesare Borgia and his equally depraved sister, Lucrezia, arrive.
Eager to obtain an ancient relic, Cesare pressures Vicente to embark on a quest to a distant monastery to steal a branch from the Tree of Knowledge. With Bianca’s father gone, Lucrezia becomes her guardian, as well as the mistress of the manor house, which contains a magic mirror. When Bianca turns eleven, Cesare lusts after her. Jealous, Lucrezia hires Ranuccio, a hunter, to take Bianca into the woods and kill her. Ranuccio agrees but frees her at the last moment. In an interesting twist on the Snow White story, Bianca takes up residence in a cave-like abode of seven stone beings and lives a chthonic existence for many years. Finally, she comes of age, and in response to her budding womanhood, the boulders take on human characteristics, evolving into dwarves.
Vicente returns with the sacred branch laden with apples. Meanwhile, Lucrezia discovers that Bianca is still alive and plots her demise. She poisons one of the apples and feeds it to Bianca, who falls into a death-like sleep. Encased in a glass-topped coffin by the grieving dwarves, Bianca is awakened years later by a chaste kiss from middle-aged Ranuccio.
Capturing the brutal world of the original tale, Gregory Maguire’s pastiche is more reminiscent of Grimm than Disney. However instead of portraying the evil stepmother as a nameless queen with a mean streak, Maguire gives the antagonist a historical identity. She’s a living, breathing woman with a vane, arrogant, and poisonous nature whose name has become synonymous with wickedness. Lucrezia Borgia is the real focus of Maguire’s novel, and it is her dark presence that imbues a familiar tale with vitality and a delightful menace.