Here are a few key words regarding Jim C. Hines's The Stepsister Scheme. Snow White, promiscuous mirror witch. Sleeping Beauty, Middle Eastern assassin. Cinderella, Pregnant Prince-rescuer. Intrigued? I was, and also by the statement given me that this was "Feminist YA fantasy! Written by a DUDE!" when it was given to me. I was not disappointed. C'mon! Princesses with weapons, spells, and babies on board? I'M IN.
For Danielle Whiteshore, previously known to her stepfamily as Cinderwench, Ever After is not going very Happily. Her new husband, Armand, disappeared mysteriously, which may be tied to the fact that her stepsister, Charlotte, is trying desperately to kill her, which might have something to do with why her handmaiden, Talia, is acting so strangely... Add to this scenario the fact that the handmaiden is actually Talia Malak-el-Dahshat, trained as a ninja assassin after being poisoned into false sleep for a century, put in the palace to protect Danielle, and the arrival of Snow, a practising witch with a vendetta against her own wicked stepfamily and a perpetually ripped bodice, and it's clear Hines was NOT using the Disney versions of these princesses as source material.
The Stepsister Scheme passes the Bechdel Test with such flying colors that it would, in fact, FAIL the test if it referred to male characters. The princesses swindle, seduce, intoxicate, confuse, and manipulate the few male characters with whom they do cross paths, and the sole good guy, Armand Whiteshore (Prince Charming, if you will), is kidnapped, bewitched, and in need of a good saving for the entire book. I don't know the male equivalent of "Damsel-in-distress," because patriarchy, but Armand's sole role in the book is to play that part, and also to give Danielle something to blush about when she realizes she's pregnant as a result of three "very educational" days snowed in immediately after her wedding.
A counter-princess narrative is not a new angle, certainly, but Hines's take is consistently remarkable in its pronounced feminism, thoughftfulness (two words which here mean the same thing), and sheer inventiveness. All three of these women are uncomfortable with their titles: Talia and Snow because theirs heralded being poisoned and having everyone important to them slaughtered, and Danielle because she grew up poor and dislikes having servants attend her. And they all do something about their dissatisfaction. Talia learns martial arts, Snow learns mirror magic and to summon the Dwarves, which are actually elements (stone, fire, light, dark, water, wind, and magic) and not people, and Danielle seeks her husband herself, despite the Court's wishes, her pregnancy, and her own fear.
For followers of the fairy tales used here, the gory, murderous history trailing each princess borrows much more from the Brothers Grimm than the Dynasty Disney. The skills each princess possesses, their ethnicities, their relationships with each other, and their sexualities, however, are entirely new. Hines renders them humorously, but they are never caricatures. If we lived in a world with Fairytowns, goblins, talking toads, and Evil Sorceresses, these princesses could even be called realistic. Now, who's up for making the movie version of THESE princesses and THEIR happily ever afters?