Saturday, 11 June 2016

#CBR8 Book 53: "The Stepsister Scheme" by Jim C. Hines

Page count: 346 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

And they all lived happily ever after... Or did they? What happens after we close the story books and leave the princes and princesses to the rest of their lives? Danielle Whiteshore, popularly known as Cinderella, is having some trouble adjusting to life as a royal, having been treated no better than a slave by her vicious stepmother and stepsisters until her sudden elevation in status upon marriage to Prince Armand. Even though they were nothing but awful to her, she still feels bad about the way birds swooped in to attack the three women on her wedding day. So when her stepsister Charlotte comes to the palace, demanding to see her, Danielle invites her in, and discovers that her bitter and jealous stepsister is determined to murder her, by mundane or magical means.

Shortly after the aborted assassination attempt, Danielle is told her husband has been kidnapped and it seems likely that both her stepsisters are involved in the scheme. Queen Beatrice, her mother-in-law, seems fairly calm under the circumstances, enlisting the help of two formidable young women, her very own "secret service". These women are Talia, also known to some as Sleeping Beauty, whose fairy gifts have ensured that she's exceptionally skilled with martial arts and weapons, and Snow White, who learned magic to defend herself from her jealous mother. The two foreign princesses are doubtful when Danielle insists on accompanying them on the rescue mission, believing that she will be a burden, as she is innocent and inexperienced.

As it turns out, Danielle may be kind and forgiving, but she's certainly not stupid and she has the useful ability to communicate with birds and animals, which more than once helps them in their quest. As they enter Fairyland, it turns out that all the three princesses are badly outmatched, and the only way they'll be able to retrieve Prince Armand and get themselves out is by working together.

I spent much of my childhood and teenage years devouring fairy tales. Scandinavian, German, French, Celtic, Arabic - I read as many as I could get my hands on and I loved seeing the various twists in folklore. I don't remember what age I was when I discovered that some of the early versions of these tales were rather brutal and violent, certainly for the evil-doers, but often for our heroes and heroines as well. Jim C. Hines is certainly aware of the darker origins, something apparent both in Snow and Talia's rather horrific backstories.

Clearly not too pleased with the often rather passive role taken by the ladies in their original stories, the women have all the agency here. The prince is relegated to kidnapping victim, while both the rescuers and villains are female. Danielle may not be as independent and capable as her fellow princesses at the beginning of the book, but learns a lot over the course of the story and more than proves her worth.

This is the first book in the series, and I suspect did a lot of setting up. I was entertained, but not exactly blown away by the story, although from my book twin Narfna's reviews of the series last year, I'm pretty sure that I want to continue with the series, if only to see how Hines reimagines other fairy tales and princesses.

Judging a book by its cover: I own this book in paperback, and having left it out on the living room table, my husband was not kind in his judgement. I can see what he means, it's not exactly the most inviting of covers. There's a whole lot of different shades of pastel competing here and some pretty awful outfits. Then there's the fact that all three of our heroines seem to be simpering in different ways, Snow White (the one with the snow flake throwing star, if you hadn't guessed) being the most egregious. What's up with that posture? Of the three, Talia is the one who comes off the best, but I refuse to believe she'd wear that much pink. The German cover for this book is WAY cooler. The publishers should consider a redesign with that.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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