A funny thing happened as I read Jim C. Hines' new book, The Mermaid's Madness - or should I say, didn't happen. While definitely light with a few humorous moments that pop up here and there, this book just isn't funny like most of Hines' other books. Instead, the tone is a bit darker, though still with the light touch necessary when three fairy tale princesses (Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty) are the main characters in your novel. I've now learned something when I read a Hines book: don't go in with any expectations whatsoever. Once I got past the fact that it wasn't going to be as uproariously funny as The Stepsister Scheme, I really got into The Mermaid's Madness and quite enjoyed.
This time, the author gives the story of the Little Mermaid that distinctive Hines twist that constant readers know and love. Queen Beatrice of Lorindar is holding the annual tribute meeting with the merfolk (or "Undine," as Hines calls them), but something seems to be amiss this year. Instead of the king, his daughter Lirea comes at the head of the Undine and attacks the queen. She thinks that Beatrice is harboring her sister, the one other mermaid who can stand in the way of her domination of her people. Lirea fell in love with a human prince and was magically transformed into a human being so that she could be with him, but despite what the fairy tales say, it all led to murder and a horrible magical turn. The consequences could end up killing the queen unless Snow, Talia and Danielle can put things right. Anybody who thinks the fairy tales tell the whole story is very much in the wrong.
The Mermaid's Madness is another tour de force of characterization, especially regarding the three princesses. Snow is a flirtatious witch, an expert in mirror magic who harbors a darker side when it comes to her mother. Using her flirtations as a shield to keep anybody from getting too close to her, she doesn't see the one person who loves her standing right in front of her. Talia is the martial arts expert, always surly but very protective of both the queen and Danielle. Danielle herself is very capable of taking care of herself, though she does feel out of her element out on the high seas. Her compassion may prove to be her downfall, though - she wants to fix the mermaid situation without unnecessary bloodshed, a desire that may lead to bad results.
I also love his take on the Little Mermaid story. Instead of the extremely happy ending widely known and treasured, the magic that makes Lirea's transformation possible in Hinesís take on the story also results in her going a little nuts. When the prince spurns her despite her sacrifice, she lashes out in anger. Her grandmother, the witch Morveren, cast the spell on her to begin with, but it's unclear until the end of the book whether she'll help the princesses stop Lirea or if she has her own agenda to tend to. When it was first made clear which mermaid "The Little Mermaid" was, I had to grin at the thought of the sweet, red-haired Disney mermaid going on a murderous rampage.
Hinesís prose and plotting continue to shine, and a few little scenes really made the book for me. I loved how Morveren and Snow worked together on teaching Snow to forego the mirrors and strengthen her magic. The relationship that grows between them is very well-written and helps Snow develop - not just as a person in her own right, but also as a character for the reader. She learns a number of things during this tutelage that will strengthen her in future books.
The Mermaid's Madness does have its funny parts and scenes, especially near the end of the book; it's just not the comedy that I was expecting. Some of Snow's flirtations with the ship's crew on their quest to find Lirea are quite amusing, especially once Morveren tries teaching her the different form of magic. However, it's almost a tragedy with a few funny parts mixed in, especially once the climax is reached and the reader sees whatís really going on. I really felt sorry for some of the characters, driven insane and dying for a reason not of their making. The fact that we feel that way despite the events of the novel says something about Hines's capabilities.
I'm anxiously awaiting the next book in the series already, and no greater compliment can be made. Just go into it with an open mind so you won't be as flustered as I was at the beginning. It's a fascinating plot with some good jokes, but the plot and characterization are the most essential things. Of course, if this is your first Hines book, you won't be going in with those preconceptions anyway.