October 21st, 2012


The Stepsister Scheme by Jim Hines

I've been reading jimhines blog for several months now, but this is the first of his novels that I'd read. I am afraid to say I didn't like it that much. I'd hoped to -- I like Hines's blog, and howardtayler reviewed the second book in the series favorably some time ago -- but the setting didn't work for me. The premise is "three fairy-tale princesses whose stories do not exactly match the fairy tales, and who are competent heroines in their own right". So, for example, no princesses waiting around to get rescued by their prince: the plot is actually Cinderella (aka Princess Danielle), now married, going off to rescue her kidnapped prince. This is a fine premise, although by the end I felt the book was a little too self-consciously feminist: almost every significant character -- the three protagonists, their nominal leader, the three main villains -- is female. But this is not a problem -- I've read hundreds of books where every important character was male, and reading one where every important character is female is at least a change of pace.

The setting was probably the biggest weakness -- it had too much of a 'generic fantasy' feel to it for my tastes. Like it was there to meet the readers' expectations of "fairy tale fantasy setting written in modern style" without a lot of thought put into "why it makes sense for the world to be this way". Not in all respects -- the treaty between humans and fairy folk was a nice piece of plot-critical backstory, for instance. But enough so that I found myself having a hard time suspending disbelief and accepting the setting.

Lut commented that the cover looked like "Charlie's Angels Fantasy Series", and it felt rather like that, too, which didn't really help. Two of the book's three princesses are from other kingdoms and secret agents for the queen, posing as servants for unclear reasons (to be inconspicuous, I guess?) with special powers -- Snow White is a sorceress with general mirror-based magical powers, Talia aka Sleeping Beauty is a combat monster. Danielle aka Cinderella can persuade animals to help her, rather like the Disney incarnation. As superpowers go, Danielle's is the most understated, and the best utilized. But the princesses-as-superpowered-secret-agents did strike me as contrived. One of the reasons I liked Danielle best is that (a) she didn't seem as powered-up as the other two and (b) her motive was 'save husband' instead of 'I'm a secret superagent'.

Things I did like: Danielle and Snow were both entertaining, likable characters. The villains were hateable and I hated them. At a number of points in the book, Danielle comes up with clever solutions to difficult problems, and I always admire that in a character (and an author). The story is reasonably well-paced and moves along well. The characters have clearly laid out competencies and weaknesses and the author sticks to them.

Overall, it was not a bad book; I'm giving it a 6. If someone wants to stick up for the sequel, The Mermaid's Madness, as being an improvement upon my issues with The Stepsister Scheme, I'd be willing to give it a shot at some point. :)