Jim C. Hines, author of the wonderful Goblin trilogy following the heroic goblin Jig, extrapolates just what happens after "They lived happily ever after" in all the fairy tales we grew up with. Little Red Riding Hood, for instance? She became a cunning assassin. The Stepsister Scheme is yet another winner, one more reason why I will pick up every book Hines writes until he disappoints me. Even then, he'll definitely get more chances. This book is a scream, and possibly his best book yet.
Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White - sure, we all know the stories, but are they really true? Cinderella (nee Danielle Whiteshore) has married her prince, but her story doesnít just stop there. Her stepsisters are still jealous and plot against her to steal back the man they believe is rightfully theirs. When one of the stepsisters allies herself with a powerful sorceress, Danielle will need a little help. It's a good thing that Sleeping Beauty (or Talia) is a martial-arts master whose fairy blessings have made her virtually invincible, definitely helpful as part of the Queen's Secret Service. The other member is Snow (White, of course), a shameless flirt who also happens to excel at mirror magic. But will these three ladies be able to rescue the prince and save Danielle's unborn child?
Hines cranks up the humor in The Stepsister Scheme with lots of jokes, playing on fairy tale stereotypes as well as legends regarding faeries. The Jig books are funny, but most of the humor derives from the situations Jig gets involved in. While that is true here, the characters also joke amongst themselves. Talia and Snow have a continuing clash regarding Snow's irreverence versus Talia's cynicism (being asleep for a hundred years because of a faerie curse can do that to you). Hines also has fun twisting the fairy tales themselves; the characters comment on what the stories say as compared to what "really" happened to them.
Hines doesnít shirk from making things dark, though. Danielle's stepmother faced an awful fate, another reason her stepsisters won't forgive her, and both stepsisters were maimed by their mother forcing them to try and fit their feet into that glass slipper. Snow's semi-flighty attitude covers a much darker history (let's just say that the Snow White tale we're all familiar with isnít quite the whole story). I haven't read the original Grimm's fairy tales these versions we all know are based on, so I can't say whether Hines used the original tales as sources or if he created all this stuff himself. Either way, it adds some much-needed depth and nuance to the whole book.
Once again, Hines shows his adeptness at characterization. All three women are extremely interesting, and the villains boast some wonderful depth, almost making the reader pity them (as Danielle does at times). Even the incidental characters - and one incidental character who actually becomes a bit more prominent - are quirky and captivating. The only character I didn't really care for is the king, who has one brief scene and seems like kind of a dweeb. I'll leave it to future books to see if I'm right about him or not. Maybe Hines will flesh him out.
The Stepsister Scheme is almost completely female-dominated. All of the men show up in only a scene, maybe two, and don't do much more than help the story move along. I'm very impressed at how "real" the women feel, coming from a male author. I'm not saying men can't generally write strong female characters, but itís rare for men to write stories so completely focused on women to the exclusion of men, and it's a treat that Hines does such a good job with all of them.
This is the most "adult" of Hines' books so far - not that thereís rampant sex everywhere or foul language on every page, but it definitely goes farther than the Goblin books do. There are a few swear words (though not many, and nothing too major) and some sexual innuendo, but nothing too far out there to preclude a young adult audience. If you can take what's on television, this is much tamer. Thankfully it's all part of the atmosphere of the book and not included cheaply.
There are no perfect books in the world, but any faults The Stepsister Scheme may have are so minor as to not detract ant all from my enjoyment of the book. Whether or not you've tried Hines' Goblin series, you should definitely check this one out. Turning fairy tales on their heads may not be completely original, but it all depends on the execution. And Hines has done a fabulous job of that.