Review: The Stepsister Scheme

After years of reading fairy tale adaptations and reimaginings, I was in the mood for something a little different. I discovered The Stepsister Scheme by Jim C. Hines on a list of 20 modern fairy tale books. It stood out for a few reasons. First, the book takes place after the "happily ever after" part of its leading princesses' fairy tales, which gives it a similar feel to Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix, in which the princesses are more experienced and willing to fight to keep their happy endings. Instead of focusing on one princess, the book features Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty in a girl-power team-up, giving it a Magical Girl vibe with a stronger focus on friendship than romance. It's also about a bunch of princesses teaming up to rescue a prince, and there aren't as many books out there about that as there should be. Right from the get-go, I knew this wasn't another reimagining of a story I've already heard a million times.

Right off the bat, I could see that this The Stepsister Scheme was different from other fairy tale adaptations I've read. It was told in the third person and placed a lot more emphasis on action and imagery than the characters' emotions, a common difference books written by men and women. By focusing on the darker Brothers Grimm versions of the stories instead of the more cheerful Perrault or Disney versions, Jim C. Hines was able to give each princess a believably tragic backstory that led up to their new tough-as-nails warrior personas. Each of the three protagonists had her own superpower. Danielle (Cinderella) had an enchanted glass sword that was left for her by her late mother, Talia (Sleeping Beauty) was a master at using a type of whip made from the spindle that she pricked her finger on, and Snow White had a collection of magic mirrors that she wore on a choker around her neck that could perform location and communication spells as well as attacks against certain types of dark creatures. It seemed as though they were more than equipped to rescue a single prince. That is, however, until they realized how powerful the magic that Danielle's stepsisters had tapped into was.

The Stepsister Scheme is incredibly fast-paced to the point where it can take some effort to keep track of all the magic and action that whizzes through each chapter. Parts of it reminded me of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, namely when the girls needed to shrink themselves in order to become travel-sized on their quest to find Danielle's husband. Though the descriptions never got too graphic, it was pretty violent for what it was. Of the three princesses, Danielle was the least experienced in fighting and had to learn to toughen up under Talia's iron fist. There were also some subtle sexual references that would make me hesitant to recommend this book to underage readers. Tonally, it was more akin to Snow White and the Huntsman and Winter's War than something like Ella Enchanted. It's not my usual reading fare, but it was a welcome change of pace from all the linear retellings and reimaginings that focus solely on true love saving the day.

There are a lot of comparisons in the descriptions of The Stepsister Scheme to Charlie's Angels, but the book is so focused on girl-power that even the "Charlie" character is a woman. Queen Beatrice, Danielle's new mother-in-law, reveals early on that she has a hidden room beneath her castle where she recruits princesses from other kingdoms to go on quests. When Beatrice's son, Prince Armand, gets kidnapped, she allows Danielle to join the rescue party because she knows it's too personal for her to agree to stay behind. It turns out to be even more personal when Danielle realizes that she is carrying Armand's child. It becomes questionable at that point whether a pregnant woman should go on such a dangerous quest, but we soon learn that the baby is a key player in the schemes of Danielle's stepsisters, Charlotte and Stacia. Danielle must depend on the experience and skill of Talia and Snow if she ever wishes to get her husband back in time for the birth of their son.

The "Warrior Princess" archetype is not new to storytelling, but it isn't often that it gets combined with older storybook characters like Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, who are usually seen as the exact opposite. What I liked about The Stepsister Scheme is that it didn't attempt to reimagine these stories like so many movies do and claim that everything you think you know is wrong, even though there were still some discrepancies about how the princesses' stories were told to the public and what they actually experienced. Instead, it picks up right after "happily ever after" and gives them a chance to turn the tide on their victimized pasts and take an active role in their futures. It is not an emotional story about finding love but instead an empowering action-driven adventure about claiming control. If that sounds like something you would be interested in, you will be happy to know that it is the first in a four-book series that features various other fairy tales.


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