Daw, 2009, 344 pages
You know how all those old fairy tales take you through lots of scary adventures till you finally reach that inevitable line: "And they lived happily ever after..." Guess what? It's not true. Life in never-never land isn't all sweetness and light. Cinderella - whose real name is Danielle Whiteshore (nee Danielle de Glas) - does marry Prince Armand. And (if you can ignore the pigeon incident) their wedding is a dream-come-true.
But not long after the "happily ever after," Danielle is attacked by her stepsister Charlotte, who suddenly has all sorts of magic to call upon. And though Talia - otherwise known as Sleeping Beauty - comes to the rescue (she's a martial arts master, and all those fairy blessings make her almost unbeatable), Charlotte gets away.
That's when Danielle discovers a number of disturbing facts: Armand has been kidnapped and taken to the realm of the Fairies; Danielle is pregnant with his child; and the Queen has her very own Secret Service that consists of Talia and Snow (White, of course). Snow is an expert at mirror magic and heavy-duty flirting.
Can three princesses track down Armand and extract both the prince and themselves from the clutches of some of fantasyland's most nefarious villains?
Snow White is the magic user, Sleeping Beauty is the fighter/thief, and Cinderella is the 0-level bard or something.
To be honest, yet another redone fairy tale did not interest me that much, and I only read this book because I read jimhines's blog. I like the guy, so I was curious to see if his writing was any good. Hey, guess what — it is!
In fact, I realized that the essential silliness of the premise and the cover was turning me off of what otherwise is just the sort of light fantasy I used to (and still do) enjoy.
The Stepsister Scheme draws very loosely on the combined tales of Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, actually putting these three women (each of them princesses in their own right) together in a fairly standard medieval fantasy world and sending them off on an adventure to rescue Prince Armand, Danielle "Cinderella" Whiteshore's too-recently betrothed. He has been kidnapped by Danielle's still-evil stepsisters, who've mysteriously leveled up with some bad-ass magic powers, and stolen him off to fairyland.
AD&D jokes aside, Hines does not bother trying to reinvent the wheel here: there are magic spells, potions, goblins, trolls, and fairies, and various other standard-issue fantasy trappings in what turns out to be quite a page-turner. It's a fast-paced fantasy adventure that does manage to make all the magical critters and plot twists interesting, and Brandon Sanderson could take a few cues from Jim Hines on how you don't need to write a damn rules manual to make magic interesting and internally consistent while serving the needs of the plot. When the faeries show up, they are also very true to the traditional fairy tales ‐ alternately funny, charming, and deeply dark and creepy ‐ while also being interesting characters in their own right.
Also, while Hines is doing a bit of reinventing, he has done his research — these aren't your crap YA fairy-tale "retellings," there are hints of older and lesser-known tales in Hines's version. (E.g. Talia.)
If you are a fan of Bill Willingham's Fables, then this book may remind you of that series — fairy tale characters who haven't entirely shaken off the glitter of their Disneyfied incarnations (Danielle talks to animals...), yet turn out to be surprisingly real and human characters, who will also cut a bitch.
Does Jim Hines get up on his Social Justice Soapbox and proclaim "LOOK AT MAH STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS"? Nope. Danielle and Snow and Talia just kick ass 'cause that's what women do. You might get all the way to the end of the novel before realizing, "Gee, Prince Armand was a nice guy and all, but he was kind of... insignificant. Just a MacGuffin, really. He didn't actually do anything, he just sat there looking pretty, like a prize waiting to be rescued... hey!"
Short version: it's fun and I enjoyed it a whole lot. I'll definitely check out the next book.
Have you read The Stepsister Scheme?
Have you read any other books by Jim Hines?
Verdict: Think of The Stepsister Scheme as a slightly feminist Fables, with traces of Terry Pratchett and Piers Anthony (the non-skeevy traces). It's not doing anything original, but what it does, it does well. A good read if you're in the mood for fun, light fantasy.
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