I’m always a bit wary of books that take fairy tales as source materials. Too often, I’ve found, they fall into a few typical traps. One is they become enslaved by the structure of one cute explanation/cute twist per each plot point of the original fairy tale, so that the twists themselves become predictable: beat one, two, twist, beat one, two, twist. Another is they become so enamored in the humor aspect of their humorous retelling that they lose sight of the telling aspect — so the plot is unoriginal and dull. Another is that they think the reader brings the character to the story so they don’t need to bother with actual characterization.
I’m happy to say that Jim Hines’ new book, The Stepsister Scheme, sidesteps all these pitfalls nicely and is a thoroughly enjoyable and intelligent novel, one that returns to the darker roots of fairy tales rather than the later prettied up versions. The story opens soon after Princess Danielle (Cinderella) has wed her Prince (currently off on a trip). One of her stepsisters, wielding unexpected magic, tries to kill her but is prevented by Talia (Sleeping Beauty), whose birth gifts of fairy graces has turned her into a perfect warrior (if not a particularly cheery one). Before escaping, Danielle’s sister lets her know that her husband Prince Armand has been kidnapped. Soon, Danielle and Talia, joined by Snow White wielding her evil stepmother’s mirror magic, head off to Fairyland, where it seems Armand is being held. Fairyland is a dangerous place for mortals though, despite an uneasy truce signed long ago when the two races nearly fought each to extinction.
Throwing the three women together was a masterstroke, allowing Hines three times the material to play with. It also lets him show different possible readings/incarnations of the same old passive fairy tale heroine. Talia is sleek and killer cold, and at the start it doesn’t seem like there’s much beyond that, though of course there is, and hers is probably the richest characterization. Danielle begins the book in her Cinderella mindset, figuring out what best removes stains from her clothes for instance (something her servants are for), and must round out into a queenly stature by the time all is said and done. The movement is realistically slow and back and forth. Snow is presented as curvaceous and flirty (and flighty), though like Talia there’s more beneath her surface; though her characterization isn’t as rich or subtle as the other two, it’s still nicely three-dimensional, especially toward the end.
Plot-wise, Hines’ first smart decision was to dump the idea of treading over age-old material by having his story take place after “and they lived happily ever after.” We do, of course, get the backstories that fill in Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella’s fairy tales, but by withholding that information and dribbling it out in flashback form, Hines is forced to come up with an immediate and original plot, along with strong characters, to hold the reader’s attention. And those backstories are startlingly different, as well as darker than one might expect. Hines isn’t simply playing fill-in-the-blank with the stories we know so well; he’s using them to reveal the origins of character — a much more interesting choice.
The story itself is pretty straightforward but never clichéd: fairyland is the mix of beauty and cruelty, order and capriciousness that one imagines it must be when it isn’t Disney-fied. We meet a troll who is actually troll-like rather than troll-lite, evil stepmothers and sisters who actually are evil and not just temporarily mean, and the story encompasses defeats as well as victories. As well, it takes time, and though time passes quickly in the way a writer can make it (“it had already been three weeks…“), Hines at least makes time pass — the quest isn’t a weekend jaunt.
The Stepsister Scheme, as seems required in fantasy nowadays, is the beginning of several books, though at least this one stands completely and happily on its own. As wary as I am of fairy-tale books, I’m even more wary of a series of them as it’s so easy to go to the well too often. But skeptical as I might be, I’d be happy to try the next one based on how pleasantly surprised I was by the first. Happily recommended.
The Princess Books — (2009-2011) Publisher: What would happen if an author went back to the darker themes of the original fairy tales for his plots, and then crossed the Disney princesses with Charlie’s Angels? What’s delivered is The Stepsister Scheme — a whole new take on what happened to Cinderella and her prince after the wedding. And with Jim C. Hines penning the tale readers can bet it won’t be “and they lived happily ever after.”