The Stepsister Scheme is the first book in Jim C. Hines fairytale princess novels. We open with Cinderella (otherwise known as Danielle Whiteshore nee deGlas) who is trying to adjust to the riches and royal responsibilities of her rags to riches story. Shortly after an assassination attempt by one of her evil stepsisters, she makes the discovery that her royal mother in law has a small espionage service, and two of her lady’s maids are also her agents. One is princess Talia (who is Sleeping Beauty) and the other is Snow White (she prefers her fairy tale moniker to her real name which is Ermillina Curtana).
Her new life is further complicated when her evil stepsisters decide to kidnap her husband and take him into “Fairy Town.” (A fairy hill that had been granted as their territory after a war between humans and fairies.) Danielle ends up accompanying Snow and Talia on a trip into Faerie, on a search for Danielle’s husband. Talia and Snow are at first reluctant to work with someone with almost no experience in espionage but the Queen insists that Danielle will be necessary for the mission. Danielle is at first a little awkward and out of place but she soon adapts, using her ability to communicate with animals to assist Snow and Talia.
Hines does some interesting things with the fairy tale tropes. There is a lot of political wheeling and dealing going on in the background, and the changes that Hines makes in the “secret origins” of Talia and Snow tend to be true to the older telling of the story, usually with a twist. For instance, Snow White is a sorceress and the daughter of a sorceress. The “seven dwarfs” are actually powerful elemental forces that she is able to summon–at the loss of seven years of her life. Talia meanwhile is from an Arabian Nights style culture overseas and she was cursed to sleep because of an assassin’s weapon known as a “zaraq whip.” The “spindle” is because the translator could not find a way to describe or name the weapon. It would be interesting to compare and contrast these books to the fairy tale retellings of Robin McKinley.
Interesting things are also going on with Hine’s take on fairies. He follows the folklore of “fallen angels not quite bad enough for hell” to describe them. In action, they are dangerous and unpredictable though they occasionally affect a claimed desire to “do what’s best for others,” it usually falls flat or has disastrous consequences (just ask the multiply “blessed” Talia who was awakened from her enchanted sleep by childbirth.) He also shows them as having politics as complicated as human politics, and fairy politics and the wicked step sister’s involvement in them is a major plot point for the story.
I really enjoyed the books in this series, and I’m looking forward to the next book, The Snow Queen’s Shadow, which will be coming out sometime in 2011.