Monday, October 24, 2011

Book Review: The Princess Novels by Jim C. Hines

Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty
Cover of The Stepsister Scheme by Jim C. Hines

The Princess novels by Jim C. Hines are a wickedly fun example of adult fairytale fantasy. Similar in style to the typical young adult fairy tale retellings, with the same familiar stories and faces, the content is still suitable for teens - but the writing is aimed at adults. Basically, it's an awesome fun, modern fantasy series that isn't particularly high brow, and more focussed on action that analysis, but has some amazingly good characters. Including a very well written lesbian who is as much as main character as her co-protagonists.

 There are four books in the series, and they are splendidly parodies, wonderfully feminist, and full of all kinds of dark and twisted fairy stories (and a few happy endings). The first story is the lightest, the last one the darkest - and doesn't stand alone as well as the other books, so read them first.

The four published books in the series:
  1. The Stepsister Scheme
  2. The Mermaid's Madness 
  3. Red Hood's Revenge
  4. The Snow Queen's Shadow

The three central girls start off in their late teens or early twenties and age throughout the books, many of the other characters are middle aged or old, people die and get hurt, enslaved for months, raped in their sleep, and are generally unpleasant. Injuries have an effect, actions have consequences, and problems aren't solved at the end with a handwave. Most of the nasty stuff (except the fighting) happens offscreen, so as not to interfere too much with the plot movement - but the storytelling gets a lot more confident by the third book, and we get a much better feel for the characters over time, not just their character sheets!

They are written for adult readers, albeit ones who like their fantasy less than subtle. There are the usual varied kingdoms - albeit well thought out - living alongside the fairies. The fairies are dangerous, manipulative and unpredictable (and varied), locked in treaties with the humans in one country, effectively in charge in another. While I initially found them a bit shallow, I became increasingly impressed by the characterisation, world building, vast numbers of females casually taking a central role, and the constant subversion of stereotypes on all sides.

There are an amazing number of strong female characters. This is a series about women. The protagonists are female, Queen Beatrice (their protector and handler) is very active, the King usually staying out of her way (out of trust, not weakness) - and her son, poor thing, is basically relegated to the supporting roles that the princess tends to play in most stories. The villains are usually female as well, from misguided to wretched to outright evil, as well as most of the allies and acquaintances the girls meet along the way.

The first book  is mostly about blonde 'Cinderella' Danielle, who has just married her prince, is learning she has a personality of her own, is trying to live down the whole glass slippers story (and her horrible former life, including the way her bird friends viciously attacked her step-family at her wedding...) - but actually got her happy ending. Until her stepsisters dabble in magic a bit too strong for them, and she has to chase off to Fairytown after her lost prince with Snow and Talia. Throughout the books, she's the soft-hearted one, the one who still has a rank that needs protecting, and the happy wife and mother. She's also the person who'll eventually replace Queen Beatrice. She slowly grows into her own, looking after her friends, and learning to use the magical sword her mother's ghost left her, but mainly she's the Nice One.

Snow and Talia appear to be Queen Bea's personal servants. They're actually both exiled princesses with nowhere to go, major trust issues, and names made famous by rumour. Queen Beatrice is wise, sighted, and something of a secret adventurer and spymaster - she's in her fifties now, so instead has started to collect princesses (including having a hand in Prince Armand finding Danielle after the ball).

Snow is a Northern snow peaks and forests girl, a sorceress, self taught from her wicked mother's library. She's flirty, promiscuous and very interested in men - also unobservant, a bookworm, has a tendency to sacrifice herself and a punny, bawdy sense of humour. While she had a fairly nightmare-filled childhood under her mother's cruel thumb, it wasn't all bad - up until her mother sent a Hunter to cut her heart out, of course. Then they ran away together and lived together until her mother hunted her down and tortured him to death. She's chronologically in her late teens, but has sacrificed a significant amount of her lifespan to summon seven powerful spirits against her mother. She also never uses her real name, as it's ridiculous, preferring to go by 'Snow'.

Talia was an Arabian(ish) Sleeping Beauty - She's the darker one with her hair pinned up, carrying a couple of knives - and it was a nightmare she's still haunted by, and a name she hates. Abused and suspicious, she's serious and deadly and has major triggers around magic, nudity and sex. The gifts granted her by the fairies at her birth lend her supernatural grace, making her one of the most deadly combatants around. And, while she was the most beautiful girl in the land, desert people from a hundred years ago have slightly different standards, so she doesn't cause people to trip over their own feet when she walks past, like Snow does (of course, the low cut bodice probably helps there!).

Talia's our lesbian. It barely features in the first book, The Stepsister Scheme , but grows steadily into a prominent part of the story in the rest of the series.

Initially, her sexuality is mainly notable by its absence, especially in contrast to flirty Snow and happily married and devoted Danielle. While she's jealous and uncomfortable about Snow's flirting, that's easily taken as general grumpiness and rigid sexual mores. But then she's forced to awaken Snow from a curse with a kiss, revealing her secret unrequited love to Danielle (though it's unclear if she hides it because of a) the lesbian issue, b) the unrequited part or c) because she's Talia and not good at vulnerability - by book three, we learn that her homeland is much more relaxed about sexual relations, and Snow isn't quite so comfortable with the idea). Danielle, being our generic good girl character, takes it well and is constantly sympathetic.

In The Mermaid's Madness however, it's a much more important part of the story., and starts to come out into the open. The three women take turns sharing the perspective about equally, so we get some of Talia's internal thoughts and reactions to Snow, the nymph Ship Captain - and the inevitable naked mermaid episodes. Right at the end, someone finally tells Snow... she has trouble dealing with it, but is still dodging around the issue at the end of the book, and pretending not to know.

And in Red Hood's Revenge, Talia and her friends end up back in her home kingdom, caught up in politics and magic - and they rescue Talia's first love along the way, a young woman from the local desert tribes, and the two of them spend much of the rest of the book making out whenever they get the chance. Talia ends up leaving, of course,

The Snow Queen's Shadow brings Talia's love for Snow into the open, and features an imaginary 'sister' of Snow's, created in an attempt to preserve part of herself from a demon, who has a definite attraction to Talia.

If I hadn't known that there was a lesbian among the main characters - and that there were more books to come - I probably wouldn't have guessed, from the first book. I get the strong impression that the author had Talia's lesbianism lie low, snuck it in at the end (where it is easily overlooked and the kiss could have easily been handwaved away by sisterly love or something else) and then, once it was an established part of her character, got to write about it openly in the sequels.

So if you're picking up this series solely for the lesbian aspect, start with the second book, The Mermaid's Madness, and then read from there. It's a better story, all three girls get to play protagonist, and they tend to repeat, recap and flashback so much of their stories (much of which are still being revealed) that you won't have any trouble picking up the thread. At least, no more than you would have in The Stepsister Scheme which jumps you in right after the end of the fairytale, with a feeling that you missed half the story!

While the books are mainly action, skipping through event after event, there is actually a lot of thought behind many of the elements. The merfolk have a spawning season, the poor little mermaid's love affair went a bit more realistically, Red Riding Hood's grandmother was killed by a fairy hunter, people flirt and wither and bruise and scar. People aren't unnaturally beautiful or nice, or monstrous. And the character development works. They're definitely worth reading.

The author is also pretty awesome, is a strong activist for women's rights, a rape awareness raiser and counsellor, and did his best to a) get Talia's skin darkened and b) the 'sexy poses' of the girls to be toned down a bit on the covers (speaking of which, check out the author's attempt to mimic Danielle's pose from the first book cover...). His other books (such as the Jig the Goblin series) are similar madcap subversive fantasy, but don't feature lesbians.

You can order the books from Amazon or download the Kindle versions.
  1. The Stepsister Scheme
  2. The Mermaid's Madness 
  3. Red Hood's Revenge
  4. The Snow Queen's Shadow

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