Book Review: The Stepsister Scheme, by Jim C. Hines

Brittany B. | 08/19/2020

The Step Sister Scheme, by Jim C. Hines is everything I want from a book – it is a fantasy story with a rich world, it’s a unique retelling of established Grimm Brother fairy tales, and the main cast are all strong, fiercely independent and capable women who couldn’t be more different:

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.”

Here is the original back cover synopsis:

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You know how all those old fairy tales take you through lots of scary adventures till you finally reach that inevitable line: “And they lived happily ever after….” Guess what? It’s not true. Life in never never land isn’t all sweetness and light. Cinderella–whose real name is Danielle Whiteshore (née 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?

I wanted to include the original synopsis because it shows just a little bit of Jim C. Hines’ zaniness; the book itself, however, reads nothing like the original synopsis, which is to say it takes itself a tad more seriously. The book is much tighter with far fewer narrative asides inundating the reader. But damn-it if it didn’t draw my attention back when I picked up my first copy of this book back in 2010. The book was published in 2009. To date is one of my favorite book series to read. It’s fun, quirky, has a unique take on fairy tale retelling, it includes queer characters, and showcases a strong cast of very capable women on both sides of the heroes and villainy spectrum.

Random fun personal fact about this book: I swear it’s cursed. Every time I’ve loaned it out to friends to read it’s been lost. I’ve bought the paperback version of The Stepsister Scheme at least five times. I had one friend lose it while traveling for school, another lost it while vacationing in Italy, another on an airplane, and another on a ferry. All of my friends had finished reading it and had enjoyed it before moving on to finish the rest of the series – but for some reason, The Stepsister Scheme always got lost. Now I’m to the point that when I recommend the book to someone and they want to borrow it, I just buy them a copy.

But you didn’t come here to hear me rant about the curse upon by bookshelf. You came here for a review. Let’s dive into that then, shall we?

The Stepsister Scheme is the first book in Jim C. Hines’ completed “Princess Series,” of which there are four books. This book is by far the least interesting because it falls prey to what most first books in a fantasy series do – sluggish world-building and setup. This book feels a bit slow, especially when it is compared to The Mermaid’s Madness, Redhood’s Revenge, and The Snow Queen’s Shadow (books two through four respectively). Don’t get me wrong, it is still very enjoyable, but if you have a hard time getting into fantasy stories because of the 50-100+ pages of world-building exposition, then getting into The Stepsisters Scheme will be just as hard. But I urge any potentially interested readers to get through those slow moving first pages because the book, and the series, is completely worth it.

As the synopsis of the book indicates, this series is a retelling of various Grimm Brother fairy tales. The Step Sister Scheme starts after Danielle (A.K.A, Cinderella), returns to the castle from her Honeymoon. The story then follows how she meets Talia and Snow (Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, respectively) and their epic quest to save Danielle’s husband. Despite the slow moving beginning to this book, I really enjoy The Stepsister Scheme because it has extremely strong characters who drive the plot. Here is a quick scene after Danielle is saved by Talia and is meeting Snow for the first time:

     […] “Her face as white as snow,” [Danielle] whispered. The story had spread through Lorindar several years before, just as Danielle’s own story had done this past month. The beautiful young girl and her evil mother. The dashing hunter who awakened the girl from her curse. The death of the witch…. “You’re Snow White?”

Snow nodded so vigorously her hair slipped over her face. She pursed her lips and blew it back. “Snow White sounds so much better than Ermillina Curtana. I hated that name.”

“Snow was the most beautiful girl in her kingdom,” [Queen] Beatrice said.

Snow gave a modest shrug, which caused her shirt to slip down from one shoulder. “It was a rather small kingdom.”

“She was exiled after her mother’s death,” the queen went on. “Banished under pain of death should she return.”

“Why?” Danielle asked.

“For killing my mother,” Snow said. “She was beautiful but terribly jealous. She sent me to the woods and paid a hunter to cut out my heart. Instead, he fell in love with me, and we lived together until she tracked us down. She murdered him, and almost killed me as well.”

[…]

“I’m sorry,” Danielle said, not knowing what else to say. Her own stepmother, for all her flaws, had never tried to murder her. “I thought…. I thought it was only a story.”

“It is,” Snow said. “That doesn’t mean it’s not true. Just ask Sleeping Beauty over there.”

Talia sighed. “You know I hate that name.”

“Yes, I do,” Snow said, grinning.

“Sleeping Beauty?” Danielle turned to Talia. At first, all she could think to say was, “Aren’t you married?”

“Hardly,” said Talia.

“But the stories, your prince awakened you with a kiss, breaking the fairy curse and–“

“Sometimes the stories are wrong,” Talia interrupted.

(Page 31 – 32)

I wanted to include that scene not only because it is the first time they all meet but because it is a good showcase of just how different all these women are. It can often be difficult to read a scene with so many characters on the page due to personality traits often overlapping, but Hines has a mastery on his characters and I never had issue keeping track who was who because they were all so distinct.

The book is solely from the third person perspective of Danielle (later books change who the third person perspective follows), which is unfortunate because she’s the least interesting of the three main characters (and even less interesting than a fourth character who I would argue is an honorary main character, Queen Beatrice). Danielle is a bit of a blank slate because she’s learning the ropes of adventuring while Snow and Talia have been doing it for years as they’ve served under the Queen and it shows. Danielle eventually gets more of a character but she’s consistently overshadowed by the presence of Snow and Talia on the page.

Now, you may be asking why we’re reviewing this. None of the Grimm Brother fairy tales had queer characters as far as modern translations show. But if you recall, I mentioned it included a queer character. The queer character in question is one of my favorites and she’s one of the main three women, but I don’t want to spoil it for any potential readers because it directly effects the plot about two thirds the way through the book (in a good way, I assure you). I also want to assure any potential readers that in the series, this character, although beaten up by the world like the other characters, does get a happy ending with another woman. 

This character is my favorite in the book but not because she’s queer. She’s my favorite for a lot of other reasons that if I go into you’ll be able to piece together who it is. But that was one thing that I really appreciated from Hines was that we got to see a queer woman be a whole person. She was more than her sexual orientation, she was more than her role on the team, and she was more than just significant to the plot. She was seamlessly integrated into the story without feeling out of place or like the author was pandering to a particular audience. 

For me – this was huge. I didn’t really start reading queer books until 2013. When I was growing up, Amazon was still in its infancy and my small town didn’t have the best access to media so I didn’t have a lot of queer representation to read. Not like we do now in the age of social media, kindle, and streaming services. And this may skew my love of this book because it was one of the first I’d read that wasn’t just a coming out story but a story with queer characters who naturally existed in the world. It was a story I wish I’d had when I was younger. 

Rereading it now, ten years later, I still love this book. It isn’t as profound as it was when I first read it (because I now only read books if they’re queer and refuse to read anything else) and I can recognize areas that could have used a little more work – more showing instead of telling, more varied dialogue, or things like that. But as far as plot, tension, and grammatical construction – the book is solid. And so is the entire series. It’s a series that I reread every few years and often recommend at the drop of a hat when someone is looking for a new series to get into.

Rating:
4.5 out of 5 Rainbows

Recommended Reader: You! Yes, you. Or anyone who is looking for a fantasy book with queer characters, strong female protagonists, or who is looking for a short series to dive into for a time. This book is great, but the other books in the series are even better!

You can find more from Jim C. Hines on his Twitter and his Website.

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