I first heard of Jim C. Hines via his project of challenging the objectification of women on “urban fantasy/paranormal romance” book covers by painstakingly (literally) re-creating the poses with himself in the starring role. Like much of my favorite activism, it’s funny and serious at the same time. (He even tackles a book where I thought the objectification of female characters went beyond the cover.) It made me curious about his work, not to mention inclined to send some financial support his way. I decided to start with The Stepsister Scheme, and I’m decidedly glad I did.
The Stepsister Scheme is set after the conclusion of several of the Grimm fairy tales, in a fantasy world characterized in large part by an uneasy truce between humans and fairy-folk. The novel opens shortly after the end of Cinderella, with that story’s protagonist attacked in her chambers by one of the vengeful stepsisters. I suspect I won’t be the only reader to note the similarities of tone between Hines’ novel and Bill Willingham’s Fables comics: they both extrapolate what more emotionally realistic characters and nuanced events could have underlain the bones of the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm, and then challenge the Disney “happily ever after.”
Hines does a good job of suggesting that magic might be bound by some rules without burdening the reader with exposition on what they might be. (He also writes some outstanding magical fight scenes.) The novel is fast-paced, with some interesting turns and reversals, not all of which I saw coming, but a few of which were a little too broadly telegraphed. I thought it flagged just a little at the end (and I found the climactic fight sequence less compelling than those previous, maybe partly because it occupies substantially more pages). I appreciated the geo-political backstory, but in contrast the socio-economic setting was a bit generic-feudal-monarchy for my taste. I was also distracted by Hines’ reliance on the word “giggle,” which crops up about once every dozen pages.
But on the whole I liked The Stepsister Scheme a lot, and I’m eager to read more from Hines.