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The Stepsister Scheme
Jim C. Hines
DAW, 352 pages

The Stepsister Scheme
Jim C. Hines
Jim C. Hines began writing in the early 90s, while working on a degree in psychology from Michigan State University. His first professional sale was the award-winning "Blade of the Bunny," which took first place in the 1998 Writers of the Future competition and was published in Writers of the Future XV. His first published fantasy novel was Goblin Quest. He lives in mid-Michigan with his wife and children.

Jim C. Hines Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Goblin War
SF Site Review: Goblin Hero
SF Site Review: Goblin Quest

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

Jim C. Hines' previous trilogy was about goblins. Now he's introducing a new fantasy series, featuring fairy tale princesses.

This first book of a projected three, The Stepsister Scheme, is centered around Cinderella, as the title hints. The story opens not long after the happy ending, when new Princess Danielle is trying to adjust to castle life, after a long stretch being a slave to her wicked stepmonster and her two horrible daughters.

In short order, one of the stepsisters, Charlotte, turns up to try to kill Danielle. That's not as surprising as the fact that the formerly lazy, slovenly Charlotte has suddenly got access to some heavy-duty magic.

Danielle is about to become a Hans Christian Andersen tragic heroine when Talia makes a spectacular entrance to the rescue. Danielle is amazed to discover that this cold, competent, expert warrior is the princess from the Sleeping Beauty tale -- about the most passive of all princesses. But hard on that comes a far more immediate, and unpleasant, surprise: Prince Armand, Danielle's new husband, has vanished.

It looks like he's been taken to Fairyland by the stepmother and stepsisters, where the rules are very different than in the human kingdoms. Only the princesses can go to the rescue, aided by curvy, flirtatious Snow White, who isn't much of a fighter, but she commands formidable magic through glass and mirrors.

Readers who discovered Hines through Goblin Quest, Goblin Hero, and Goblin War, are going to find similar strong characterization, the breadth of humorous riffs on fantasy tropes (especially fairy tales), and deftly set up, increasingly complex world building. Like the Goblin Trilogy, at first glance, the story appears to be funny fantasy with a high dose of adventure. But in the middle of the fast-past action and the snappy exchanges, questions arise. Why is life so different from the tales? How does the magic work? What's going on below the surface of this tenuous truce between fairyland and the human world?

The bigger questions are raised, and touched on now and then, but not resolved. Like the first of the goblin books, Hines paints in the world in mostly broad strokes, hinting that complexity is going to build with each succeeding book. What he concentrates on in this book are the characters. He is so good at depicting gnomes that act like gnomes, pixies that seem pixie-like, trolls, rats, and the rest that view the world through a trollish, ratty paradigm.

At first, Danielle seems to be sweet and clueless. Hines demonstrates Danielle's difficulties in adjusting from slavery to princesshood. Not only does she scan a room automatically assessing the best way to clean it, she tends to apologize for herself, to defer when she should assume privilege. But privilege does not come as easily as one might assume, especially to someone whose nature is compassionate and caring. Even though Prince Armand is off-stage, his attraction to Danielle is convincing: without ever telling the reader why, Hines shows us how innate charm works.

Snow seems the scattered flirt, dazzling as her mirrors, but slowly she gains gravitas through her abilities. The question of where are the seven dwarfs might occur to the reader. Don't worry. Hines never drops a thread.

At first, Talia appears to fit into the Lara Croft kickbutt heroine category -- no personality, all competence all the time. But with each incident, Danielle, who sees each creatures as he, she, or it, really is, not how it appears, keeps gently peeling away those layers of steely competence, making surprising discoveries. The interactions between the three princesses are the main strength of the book: as they act, and react, each reveals more about herself, as she begins to change.

The cleverness of the action sequences complements the characterization, a balance that is difficult to achieve. The action can take dark turns, just as in the goblin books. Nothing comes easily, and even in Fairyland there is loss: evil characters are really evil, and the effect of evil hurts.

The book does not end in a cliffhanger. Readers will be satisfied with the book's main arc, but there are enough intriguing questions set up to make one look forward to the next.

Copyright © 2009 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at

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