Jim C. Hines’ newest series is the “Princess” series, which retells the stories of Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty in an entirely new way. These are novels that add intrigue, drama, romance and passion to stories that we all think we know, but perhaps don’t; they also are often wildly funny in a macabre sort of way, which is tough to pull off.
The first novel in the “Princess” series is THE STEPSISTER SCHEME, where we meet Princess Danielle Whiteshore (neé de Glas), whom most of us know as Cinderella. Danielle married Prince Armand of Lorindar, has been accepted by Armand’s family, and all seems to be going well at the beginning of this novel.
However, all is not as it seems; while Danielle and Armand are deeply in love, Danielle’s stepsisters Stacia and Charlotte remain incensed that Danielle has married into royalty. Worse yet, due to an incident at Danielle’s wedding (where Danielle’s stepmother acted badly, so some pigeons pecked her to death), the stepsisters blame Danielle for their mother’s death as well.
This appears to be the main reason why Charlotte attempts to kill Danielle in the first chapter with unusually strong magic. Danielle knows that Charlotte didn’t have this magic before, or she’d have used it to snare Armand (as Charlotte was infatuated with him); she manages to foil Charlotte’s assassination attempt with the help of a strange servant, Talia, who has unusually strong skill with weapons, and the help of some loyal birds. But because of this new magic, Charlotte gets away to points unknown.
Quickly, we find out that Danielle has a rather unusual magic talent in that she can speak to animals (unlike Mercedes Lackey’s version, Animal Mindspeech, the animals cannot speak directly back), which is why the birds helped foil the assassination attempt (one was killed and another seriously wounded); that Talia isn’t what she seems, either, as she’s Sleeping Beauty, albeit a Sleeping Beauty who’s skilled with weapons (her fairy “birth gifts” gave her uncommon grace and balance); and that there’s a third Princess, Snow White (otherwise known as Ermillina Curtana, though she hates her name and prefers to be called “Snow”), who has major magical talent of her own.
But Charlotte’s attempt on Danielle’s life was only a feint, we find out, as Prince Armand has been kidnapped and taken prisoner. (Mind you, Charlotte would’ve been glad to kill Danielle, had it worked.) Queen Beatrice (“Bea” for short, Armand’s mother), Lorindar’s spymaster, initially decides to send Talia and Snow to rescue Armand, but Danielle argues her way onto the team.
This is a good thing, because all three princesses’ talents will be needed to first find out where Armand is (as there’s been no demand for ransom), then to rescue him. During the series of adventures that follow, the three princesses bond and become friends; they also all turn out to have very odd senses of humor (Snow in particular is a punster), which enlivens their adventures and turns them, at times, into farce.
So while the rescue of Prince Armand is never in doubt, what it takes to get him back is extremely sad, funny, enjoyable, and intriguing (in both senses of the word) by turns. That’s because THE STEPSISTER SCHEME is really good fun. It is eminently readable, has good emotional depth, and seems quite plausible due to the “story distortion” effect (where the more people talk about something, the more a story changes).
After reading the successful start to the “Princess” series, I couldn’t wait to read book two, THE MERMAID’S MADNESS. Queen Bea needs to meet with the merfolk due to treaty concerns; the reason she must do so rather than her husband the King is because the merfolk are matriarchal. Princess Danielle is along because she has to be presented to the merfolk as Prince Armand’s new wife.
Of course, things do not proceed as planned. Danielle has seasickness, but that’s not the worst of her troubles; Queen Bea and Danielle find out at the same time that the King of the merfolk is dead and his unstable daughter, Lirea, has taken the throne. Lirea won’t honor the treaty between the humans of Lorindar and her people; about the only thing she does right is tell Bea and Danielle to their faces that the treaty is now null and void.
As this is a novel that turns well-known fairy tales on their collective heads, we quickly find out that Lirea is otherwise known as “the Little Mermaid.” She fell in love with a human man, wanted to stay with him, but was rebuffed. However, this has brought out her war-like nature, and that’s why she called off the treaty with Lorindar (even though her man was from another place entirely).
Lirea’s sister, Lannadae, knows there’s something wrong, so she comes on board Queen Bea’s ship, the Glass Slipper. But Lannadae is a complete innocent, even though she’s only a year or so younger than Lirea; she is easily manipulated by other merfolk, is timid and shy, and while she’s possibly the only other person who can take the throne of the merfolk and do well with it, she refuses to intrigue against her sister — Lannadae will only attempt to heal Lirea, nothing more.
Lannadae ends up in Lorindar for a time, while Danielle, Talia, and Snow all plan to get to Lirea and find out what’s going on there and stop it, if at all possible. But because the merfolk have ended the treaty, the waters surrounding Lorindar are no longer safe; this is why when they do go out to sea again, they board dryad Captain Hephyra’s ship, the Phillipa. Hephyra’s ship, you see, was made from her original tree, and thus should be stouter and stronger despite it being smaller than the Glass Slipper as Hephyra should be able to counter most magic without half-trying, being of magical origin herself.
There seems to be only one person who might be able to heal Lirea, the merfolk’s exiled Queen Mother, Morveren. She’s hidden on an island for what turns out to be good reason; she is a magic user, and can do serious harm to people of all races whenever she feels like it. But she swears that all she wants to do is help to heal Lirea, and Lannadae concurs; that’s why, despite some inner misgivings, Morveren is taken on to Hephyra’s ship and they all proceed to attempt to heal Lirea.
So, will they heal Lirea? Will Lannadae lose her naïveté, or at least become slightly less clueless? What will Morveren do, and when will she do it? And why, oh why, can’t any “Little Mermaids” other than the Disney cartoon version ever seem to find a happy ending?
Hines’ writing is crisp and clean, the story is plausible, and once again, the emotional depth is there along with the wit and satire that so enlivened THE STEPSISTER SCHEME. Yet something here wasn’t quite as interesting, something I can’t quite put my finger on; all I know is, while this is a good story that held my interest, it didn’t measure up to the first novel in the series. And as this is the second time this has happened in a Hines’ series, if I were his editor, I’d be working with him to strengthen the second book in any given series as this seems to be a pattern he must learn to break.
That said, both novels are a lot of fun to read; they are fast-paced, energetic, with a goodly amount of intrigue and strife along with the humor, and that is really tough to pull off.
My recommendation is to buy these novels in paperback. They’re fun and funny, and are well worth your time to read.
THE STEPSISTER SCHEME — A.
THE MERMAID’S MADNESS — B.
— reviewed by Barb
Note: Books three and four of this series will be reviewed in coming days.