Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Stepsister Scheme

Author: Jim C. Hines

Publisher: DAW, 2009

Format: Mass market paperback, 344 pages

Back cover blurb: 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 own very secret service that consists of Talia and Snow (White, of course). Snow is an expert at mirror magic and heavy duty flirting.

Can the three princesses track down Armand and extract both the prince and themselves from the clutches of some of fantasyland’s most nefarious villains?

Review: OK, so I'm trying a new format for my book reviews.  I felt like I either just got really wordy and went on and on, or didn't have a lot to say and the reviews were too short.  This will at least give you some more info--although most of it is easily available somewhere (like Amazon.)  I'll try it anyway.

Jim C. Hines, a native of my part of the woods, apparently (kinda sorta a neighbor of mine, I guess) has written a well-regarded fantasy comic/parody series about goblins, and now he's also got a 4-book series about fairytale princesses.  This isn't new; the entire series was completely in print almost a year ago now, but it's still relatively new, since even the first book only was put into print three years ago.  (I've never made any attempt to be trendy with my fantasy reading habits anyway--most of what I read has been in print for some time.  I also dislike starting series that aren't already finished, nearly so, or at least putting out new episodes at a steady and fast pace.)

The packaging; the quotes from other authors, for instance, the art style, the back cover blurb--all lead one to believe that this is a relatively light-hearted and light-toned pseudo-parody itself; a kind of Disney princesses meets Charlie's Angels or something.  And while in a sense that's true, in a sense it's also not--the tone is quite a bit darker than it would appear to be from the packaging.  Hines goes back to the much darker (and frankly sometimes seriously 'messed up') versions of the fairytales, which is all the rage amongst fans of fairytales these days.  So, if you're familiar with the fact that Sleeping Beauty was Jacob and Willhelm Grimm's somewhat "cleaned up" version of a narrative by Charles Perrault, which was in turn a "cleaned up" version of Giambattista Basile's Sole, Luna e Talia, then you'll find that you've already been somewhat spoiled for what are supposed to be big surprises later down the line.

In the end, I found that this tonal dichotomy was somewhat of the novel's undoing.  I liked it, but I didn't love it, and part of that was that it couldn't really decide if it was a dark fairytale, or a light fantasy Charlie's Angels story, and often went back and forth between the two tones and modes.  I also found that using well-known characters and plots (to some extent) as the main characters and backstory for the novel made for a strangely dissociative experience, where it was more difficult to engage with the novel on its own merits.  Which is a shame, because the novel is actually quite good.  The premise, though, felt a little too precious or "cute" at times to support the deeper story that this attempts to be.

Despite that, the book moves along fairly well and is easy to read.  The plot is clear yet contains a few satisfying twists.  The characters are reasonably well developed and interesting--if perhaps a bit too familiar.  Hines makes a few changes to try and alleviate that problem; for example, making Talia (Sleeping Beauty) a bitter, angry, martial artist who hates men.

Although I specifically bought just the first book in the series to see if I want to go on, I don't think I'll be buying the rest.  I may yet pick them up from my library though.  I thought the weight of the concept and all the baggage that that entailed was difficult to overcome, although Hines makes a good enough effort at it that it does work fairly well.  However, for the next three books in the series, he mostly layers in more fairytale concepts--the Little Mermaid and Little Red Riding Hood, specifically, before finally going with a more original take for the last book in the series.  This concerns me a bit, because like I said, the concept and its baggage was already the most difficult thing to overcome as it was.

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