Friday, July 29, 2011
The Stepsister Scheme
The title sounds like it’s making fun of a Robert Ludlum thriller and Scott Fischer’s cover art looks like the Disney Princesses ™ meet Charlie’s Angels. That last one is a fairly apt description. It’s another riff on introducing of fairy tales to a modern audience without insulting their intelligence. Although I hadn’t been particularly impressed with the one other Jim C. Hines book I read (Goblin Hero) this one sounded a little like Fables. I’m an immense Fables fan (like I’ve made a secret of that here) so thought The Stepsister Scheme would be worth a try.
At the heart of it the book is what happens following the words ‘and they lived happily ever after’. It appears that’s not actually the case. The book’s heroines are Danielle Whiteshore (nee De Glas), who most of the world knows better as Cinderella, the grumpy, cynical Talia who is a martial arts mistress and better known by the name Sleeping Beauty and Snow generally known to the world at large as Snow White, she’s very pretty, flirtatious and no mean sorceress.
The plot revolves around Cinderella (generally referred to in the book by her real name of Danielle) and how she’s coming to terms with her married life as Princess Danielle of Lorindar when one of her unpleasant step sisters; Charlotte reenters her world, attempts to kill Danielle and then makes off with her husband Prince Armand, under a sorcerous compulsion.
All of a sudden Danielle finds out that serving girl Talia is a princess in her own right and a bodyguard, along with Snow she makes up Queen Bea’s (Danielle’s mother-in-law Queen Beatrice) crack task force of butt kicking princesses. The girls go after Cinders’ husband. Talia doesn’t want Danielle coming along, as far she’s concerned the glass blower’s daughter is dead weight, but the new princess is determined, they’ve stolen her hunky husband after all, and that thing she has of getting small animals to do what she wants can come in mighty handy when you’re dealing with the fairy folk.
As the girls go on their quest they find themselves in all sorts of crazy and often dangerous situations where all their talents will be needed to keep themselves alive and complete their mission objective. The back stories come out along the way. The author decided to adopt Basile’s story of Sleeping Beauty, which is how she got her name of Talia, not Perrault’s or Grimm’s or thank God Disney’s, he also gave her a distinctly middle easterm flavour, which I quite liked. Both Snow and Cinderella were the Grimm stories, but the ones before they were cleaned up. The decision was appreciated by this reader.
Despite all the action in the first 2 thirds of the book it doesn’t really take off until the final third, which is edge of the seat stuff and has the reader wondering, now how exactly are they going to get out of this? I believe Hines has studied martial arts (I think I read about him doing karate on his Livejournal one time) and it shows in the choreography of the book’s many fight scenes. Despite the proliferance of the action sequences I found them a little confusing. There were also one or two unnecessary ones.
Essentially the 3 leads are front and centre most of the time so it’s good that they are appealing, varied and multi layered characters, who I feel the audience has only just scratched the surface of. There were a couple of fun cameos by the formidable power behind the throne of Lorindar; Queen Bea and the lecherous gnome Arlorran. The villains were rather well done, if a little under utilised. I think there was more to the step sisters Charlotte and Stacia than we got to see and I liked the cowardly troll Brahkop.
It goes without saying that it all ends happily ever after. The book is totally self contained, but Jim C. Hines has done 3 sequels. I’ve got The Mermaid’s Madness ready to go and will be reviewing that here soon as well, so yes I’m a definite fan.
A few things that I wanted to mention. Two concern the book and one doesn’t, but it’s always bugged me so I may as well drop it in here. Talia and Snow have talent. Talia is the muscle, while Snow handles the magic. Danielle’s resourceful and plucky, she can talk to animals and she’s got an enchanted glass sword, but as Talia said she’s not much use in a tight situation. She may develop an offensive talent in the future books.
I did like the character traits Hines gave his heroines. Talia would much prefer to fight than ask questions, she put me in mind of Michael Weston’s trigger happy girlfriend Fiona in TV’s Burn Notice. Snow covers up her tortured past and her genuine power with a façade of flirtatiousness. Despite now being a princess Danielle finds it difficult to leave her life of drudgery behind and often finds herself thinking of how to clean surfaces in the most incongruous of situations.
Finally I have always wondered about Cinderella’s father. Every legend says he was a pretty decent, smart kind of guy and devoted to his daughter. Why then did he marry this harridan of a woman with her two demon children and allow them to turn his only daughter into a virtual slave? That’s always made me scratch my head and no one ever seems to address it. Maybe Jim C. Hines will put me out of my misery in one of the 3 sequels to The Stepsister Scheme.
In closing: buy it, read it, you won’t regret it.