The Stepsister Scheme

I am starting to get a feeling for Jim C. Hines. Hines is a very good writer: he comes up with interesting worlds, fun characters, and keeps the action moving. So far, though, while I have enjoyed every book of his that I’ve read I have not found any of them that really stand out. I filed his Jig the Goblin books as excellent, but even when I did it I realized that while I personally highly enjoyed them, they probably would not appeal to everyone. There is simply something missing that prevented them from ascending from “lots of fun” to “you absolutely must read this book”.

The Stepsister Scheme was the same way. This book is undeniably a lot of fun, and I love the world and most of the characters. However, I came away from the book unsure if I wanted to continue reading other “Princess Novels” (which honestly is about the most generic name for a series ever), and the reason is that this book felt a lot more like pulp fiction than the Jig the Goblin books. Now, that won’t be off-putting to everyone. I happen to prefer a virtually asexual irreverent anti-hero to the oversexualized heroines of The Stepsister Scheme; just a matter of taste. Other people may be put off by Jig’s casual barbarity, and prefer the glitz and Charlie’s Angels-style female protagonists who live in Hines’ fairy tale kingdom.

The Stepsister Scheme is undeniably well-written, and like his Jig the Goblin books the world Hines has created is a lot of fun and manages to be both highly derivative of past works while still wrapping everything up in a way that feels new. I also very much enjoyed the fact that Hines used the older, more darkly graphic versions of the fairy tales as his basis instead of the Disney-style happy-fests that are so common these days.

I am coming to the conclusion that the best way to tell if you will enjoy a Hines novel is to read the dust jacket description. If it sounds like something you would enjoy, jump in! You’re going to be in for appealing characters, excellent writing, and although it might not be the best book you have ever read I doubt you’ll regret buying it. For me, Stepsister Scheme wasn’t quite as appealing as Jig’s novels, but it is well worth checking out regardless.

Plot summary

The plot summary contains spoilers! Show it anyway.

Danielle Whiteshore (Cinderella) is still settling into life in the palace when her stepsister Charlotte comes to visit. Charlotte tries to kill Danielle, but is foiled by Talia, one of the servants in the castle as well as Danielle’s gift of calling animals to help her in times of need. Charlotte escapes using magic abilities that she never possessed before, but not before taunting Danielle that she will never see her husband Armand again.

Talia leads Danielle to a secret room under the castle to meet with Queen Beatrice. The Queen reveals that Armand has been kidnapped, and reveals that Talia is actually a princess in her own right from another country (Sleeping Beauty). She also introduces Snow (her real name is Ermillina Curtana, but she is Snow White) who is a sorcerous and works primarily with mirror magic. Beatrice evidently sometimes has visions of the future, which helped her to collect the three princesses.

The three visit Danielle’s old home to try and find the stepsisters, but find it empty. They do find evidence of magical activity in the attic, and when Danielle goes to talk to her mother’s spirit in the hawthorne tree in the garden she discovers that the tree is infested with a demon called a Chirka. The three successfully exorcise the Chirka, but the tree dies after giving Danielle a magical glass sword.

Since the only place the stepsisters could have gone to get the magical ingredients necessary for summoning a Chirka would be a troll on the edge of town, they go to visit the troll Brahkop. He tries unsuccessfully to kill them with his virtually unbreakable hair, but Danielle’s sword cuts through it.

The troll refuses to help them, but reveals that Danielle is pregnant. Snow says this will allow her to find Armand, and the three tell the troll to clear out and leave.

Snow’s magic is indeed able to locate Armand, but he is in Fairytown. The three princesses go to visit Ambassador Trittibar, who can shift his size and lives in a hollow brick within the side of the mews. He lends them his hawk to fly them to Fairytown, and tells them how to summon someone to let them through the wall surrounding it.

The three are able to get into Fairytown and seek out Arlorran, who is the queens’ summoner and a long-distance correspondent of Snow’s. He is unable to summon Armand, but he is successful in summoning Charlotte. The three subdue Charlotte, and find a fairy mark on her that would kill her if she reveals where her sister and Armand are hiding. Charlotte reveals that Armand is under a love spell, but can’t say much more.

Arlorran tries to summon her other stepsister Stacia, but is unable to get them into his home. However, Stacia and a shadow boy (evidently called a darkling) sneak in and attack them, freeing Charlotte in the process.

The princesses pursue the stepsisters with the help of the pixies (who owe Arlorran help, because he used to be married to a pixie) and discover they are hiding in a crevasse with the Duchess, a renegade fairy who has both the queen and king of the fairies chasing after her.

Unfortunately, in the showdown they discover that Stacia is possessed by Queen Rose Curtana, Snow White’s evil mother (and married to Brahkop the troll). Apparently Charlotte convinced Stacia to get into witchcraft to try and raise their dead mother, but they ended up finding Rose instead.

Stacia/Rose puts Snow White into an enchanted sleep inside of a coffin made from her mirrors, removes Talia’s fairy blessings, and binds Danielle into a slave. Talia escapes, however, with Danielle’s help. It turns out the whole thing was a trap to get Danielle, because Rose wants to possess her child in order to return to life and power.

After a nasty period being forced to serve her stepsisters again, Talia returns and between the two of them (with some help from friendly rats) they kill Charlotte. They then use Trittibar’s shrinking magic seeds to get to Snow, who Talia awakens by kissing her (true love’s kiss being the only way to get her up and about).

Snow convinces them to summon the seven “dwarves”, magical constructs whose help comes at the cost of seven years of her life. With the dwarves’ help they head off to fight with Stacia, and Snow is left behind by the other two trying to take Stacia out.

Danielle and Talia find the Duchess, Brahkop, and Armand. They tell the Duchess Danielle has been held prisoner, which by fairy law means she cannot intervene. They kill Brahkop, break Armand’s curse by laying him out and then having Danielle kiss him, and then Stacia returns and attacks. They kill Stacia, but Rose escapes her body.

Then Snow shows up and kills her mother using mirror magic. The Duchess comes back and tells Danielle that if she ever needs her help in the future, she can summon her. Danielle is not too happy with the Duchess, but decides to keep this in mind. The Duchess also warns her that all the black magic around might have harmed her unborn child.

Worried about the future, but happy to have reclaimed Armand, the trio heads homeward.