Not Your Typical Princesses

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You want some rockin summer reading? Nothing heavy, but lots of fun, with maybe some thinky stuff thrown in if you feel like thinking while you scoop sand up with your toes and let the waves lull you to sleep? (or you could go to your local big mouse store & roll your eyes at the merchandising of the following characters)

Jim Hines’  Princess series started with The Stepsister Scheme back in 2009. It was closely followed by The Mermaid’s Madness and a year later, Red Hood’s Revenge. But it’s never too late to wave the pay attention flag when it comes to books you really like. So, here’s my flag: read this series! Hines has a fourth book coming out July 5th called The Snow Queen’s Shadow. Yay, can’t wait!

The princesses in the books are take charge, solve their own problems and take orders from the Queen kind of women agents. Hines took the original fairy tale princesses and gave them humanity, flaws, and honest reactions to their abuse from their not-such-fairy-tale-lives. The stories Disney loves to sanitize? Are totally fluffy light  fairy tales in the current meaning of the term. The princesses real lives (and original stories) are nothing like their more well-known stories. Just ask the violent Talia – I dare you — about her prince and his family. What does a Cinderella named Danielle do to calm herself down after being treated like a slave in her household? Eat bonbons and order the servants about? Not damned likely. And what about Snow, the seemingly easy-goingest Princess of the bunch? You really don’t want to know about her mother.

It’s not only that they break the classicDisneyprincess mold, Danielle, Talia and Snow interact. A lot. With each other. Solving problems, disagreeing. There’s scarcely a male around, except the infrequently seen King and Danielle’s husband and young son, and a smattering of fairies and secondary characters. These women are the center of the stories. In The Stepsister Scheme, Danielle’s husband the prince is kidnapped by her eviller step sister who wants not only her husband and her unborn child but a little something extra from a powerful player in the fairy realm. Queen Beatrice sends Danielle, Talia, and Snow to recover the prince, and it’s a fun ride from there that blows away any misconceptions about princesses you might have had.

The second book involves the Merfolk and the Little Mermaid was not the blessed creature from the Hans Christian Andersen story. Oh no. This one has been driven mad with love and hatred, and it’s up to Danielle and company to get her to stop sinking ships in their shipping lanes and find out why the Merfolk have broken their treaty and started attacking shipping and coastal towns.

In this book Hines goes deeper into the world he’s created. After all, what kind of world is it that has Merfolk in the waters, magic in the sands, fairies living in a cordoned off town, and where your next step could be the last one you ever make. And it is, sort of, for one of the characters (not telling you which one). There are consequences.

Red Hood’s Revenge introduces another character from a well-known tale, only this isn’t a naive little girl evading a wolf. Oh no. You don’t want to get on Hood’s bad side, because she’s a premiere assassin. Like Talia, Danielle and Snow, she has her reasons for why she has become what she has become. Hood takes us to Talia’s home country, and we get a look at what happens when supernatural creatures take over. It’s not good. We discover more about Talia, which is always a bonus. She’s my favorite character; she has the most on-going angstiness of any of them, but Snow may soon surpass that with the next book. I don’t know about that for sure, because I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

And lastly, although technically this isn’t a book about a princess, is a favorite of mine from way back. I searched for it for years (it had criminally gone out of print) and yay! It was recently reprinted after a long absence.

Diana Wynne Jones is up there as one of the best fantasy writers out there, in my opinion. Her recent passing is a huge loss to readers of fantasy. She published one of my favorite stories way back in 1975, and it still read well when I found it again. If you haven’t read Dogsbody  you’re missing out on a fantastical, bittersweet story about immortal Sirius, a star sentenced to be a mortal dog on earth after allegedly murdering his companion star. His mission is to find the Zoi, a beyond powerful weapon that fell to Earth. While Sirius grows up from puppyhood and searches for the Zoi, he is adopted by Kathleen, an orphan living a hard life with horrible relatives. You could call her a variation of Cinderella, but you’d be underestimating Wynne Jones’ story and the character. She has no idea that Sirius is actually the Dog Star from up in the heavens. Herne, Sol, Earth and the Moon come to help Sirius out in ways that they can. After all, the celestial realm is harsh.

Kathleen may not be a classic princess in the way that Talia/Sleeping Beauty, Danielle/Cinderella and Snow/Snow White are, what with being members of royalty. She’s a real young girl, likable, downtrodden, doing the best she can to protect Sirius, and keeps her diginity while doing it-and seriously, can you ask for anything more in a contemporary fantasy? (I wouldn’t call it urban fantasy because it doesn’t have any of the characteristics of what is called UF at this time)

You could do a lot worse than invest in the Princess Quadrilogy and Diana Wynne Jones’ Dogsbody.

Comments

  1. says

    I really like the Princess books. I’ve read many of the original fairy tales and it’s such fun to see those elements Disney discarded show up in these books. And my respect for Mr. Hines shot up when I read his livejournal post acknowledging that Talia is a lesbian and she is a rape survivor, and he really should have clarified that these were independent of each other instead of leaving open the possibility that one caused the other.

    I love Diana Wynne Jones but I haven’t read Dogsbody yet. She has so many great books I haven’t had a chance to read them all. I will definitely check it out, though.

  2. says

    M.C.,

    While I agree with you that the cover is overly sexualized and completely contrary to the tone of the books, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “porn”.

    I mean, my porn has naked people in it…

  3. says

    M.C.,

    If you’re a reader (and German), complaining to the publisher about the inappropriately painted cover might do more than anything else. I wouldn’t call it porn, but yeah. So not what the inside is like.

  4. MaggieCat says

    Sylvia Sybil,

    When I first saw those my thought was “Princess themed strip club”, so maybe that’s more accurate? ;-) They do highlight everything I like about the US covers though.

    I thought it was interesting that Hines went back to the older version of the Sleeping Beauty story, since no matter how much I like the Disney version I’ve always thought that was a particularly creepy set-up. My first exposure to the non-Disney version was Perrault’s (here) which softens it a bit — the king and queen aren’t under put under the sleeping spell on the castle so they’re able to rule, the fairy who did it is prescient and Beauty spends 100 dreaming of the prince so she already knows him when he shows up — but since they weren’t originally intended as stories for children it’s far more interesting to go back to the creepier version and tear down the fallacy of waiting for someone you don’t even know to show up and fix things.

  5. says

    MaggieCat,

    The first non-Disney version of Sleeping Beauty I encountered was the one where Prince “Charming” rapes her in her sleep, she gets pregnant with twins, gives birth still in the coma and is awoken when the babies try to nurse her and suck the splinter out of her finger. Which is I think just about the worst version and pretty close to the one Hines goes with. That version really made me think twice about who the hero in these tales was supposed to be.

  6. MaggieCat says

    Sylvia Sybil,

    I think hearing that version was the first time I ever thought that Disney made a good call. There are some ugly power dynamics even in the toned down versions.

    Even on a third re-read (and I only first read them earlier this year) the people in Lorindar not knowing/finding out what the zaraq was and just deciding it was the spindle from a spinning wheel (“I used to wonder what kind of spinning wheels you people used, that could kill with the mere prick of a finger”) makes me laugh more than it probably should about works from other locations that are poorly adapted.

  7. says

    Dani,

    You’re welcome! More superawesome reading coming up in the next few weeks, hopefully. There are some books that commenters have mentioned in other book discussion threads that I’ve discovered are making my reading life more & more exciting. Seriously, fellow readers, *please* don’t hesitate to mention books you’ve liked entirely, or partially, or whatever–I know I’m always up for books I haven’t met yet! (caveat: unless they feature werewolves with alpha/omega dynamics…just, no.)

  8. says

    Sylvia Sybil,

    This is the most horror filled version, isn’t it? Seriously, reading the original versions (at least the ones that made it onto paper via the Grimms), it’s like reading a horror book. These are not your light and airy stories filled with uberdangerous fae and other creatures that have been toned down. Punishments and events are also toned down in stories churned out for general comsumption, or for children.

    Has anyone seen the newish Red Riding Hood movie? The horror movie? I’ve heard it’s close to the original intent of the original story. Don’t know if that’s true, though.

  9. says

    MaggieCat,

    Hee, I like the Disney movie a lot more after hearing the fan interpretation that it’s really the three fairies’ story and getting the lovelorn teenagers together is the job they have to do. Disney definitely cleaned it up, having the couple meet beforehand so it seems like love instead of arranged, going with “true love’s kiss” instead of, uh, more than a kiss…

    Gategrrl,

    Oof, yeah. Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off parts of their feet in order to fit them into the glass slippers. Et cetera, et cetera.

    I refused to see that movie due to the publicity stunt they pulled with the novelization. The novel was available a few months before the movie’s release, but people who bought it found the last chapter had been redacted to avoid spoiling the movie. After the movie’s release, a website would go live and readers could enter a code to unlock the last chapter. The double stupidity of paying full price for a book that gave no warning it wasn’t a full book, and of making part of the book only available on a website which will eventually go down making the paper book useless, really turned me off the movie.

  10. says

    (Because I forgot one two of the things I wanted to say.)

    Gategrrl,

    Well, if we’re going for full Sleeping Beauty horror, there’s a version in which the prince is already married to another woman. Conflict occurs between Beauty and the horribly irrational, jealous wife *eyeroll* until finally True Love prevails and Beauty and the prince live happily ever after. I haven’t seen the wife show up in the rape version, but one could combine them for full WTF points I guess.

    MaggieCat,

    And if we’re going for cute, cleaned up versions, there’s a kids’ book (by Gail Carson Levine?) in which one of the fairies’ gifts was to be smarter than anyone else, ever. This turns the princess into an insufferable know-it-all and no one wants to talk to her because she can’t help spouting off useless trivia. She falls asleep for 100 years, yadda yadda, and the prince of the new ruling family a century later is an insufferable questioner, always asking “Why?”. He goes to wake the princess up because he heard she could answer his questions. And they lived happily ever after.

  11. M.C. says

    Sylvia Sybil:
    M.C.,

    While I agree with you that the cover is overly sexualized and completely contrary to the tone of the books, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “porn”.

    I mean, my porn has naked people in it…

    My port has naked people in it too, but scantily clad people on the cover. *gg*
    I would actually like to read the feminist porn-version of some fairytales, because thanks to Hines’s SnowWhite/SleepingBeauty is now my fairytale OTP. ;-)
    But If I was looking for a book about spy/warrior princesses and their epic friendship, I wouldn’t pick up a book with some scantily clad women wielding swords while striking erotic poses.

    Gategrrl:
    M.C.,

    If you’re a reader (and German), complaining to the publisher about the inappropriately painted cover might do more than anything else.

    I just did that. Can’t believe I haven’t thought of it myself….

  12. says

    M.C.: But If I was looking for a book about spy/warrior princesses and their epic friendship, I wouldn’t pick up a book with some scantily clad women wielding swords while striking erotic poses.

    Yeah, no joke.

  13. says

    Sylvia Sybil,

    Oh, yes, I’d read that detail about the prince already being married, probably on a website devoted to documenting fairy/folk tales as much as possible. Thanks for reminding me of it!

    Mmmm, I think Jim Hines is linked to that site on his website, but I’m not sure. The original folk tales are soooo lurid and so not about what a prince Charming is, because he *isn’t*. If you go back far enough, whoa, these princely characters are *not* the romanticized troubadourian characters from the middle ages sung for the upper classes. (I could be wrong, I’m not a folklorist)

  14. MaggieCat says

    Sylvia Sybil:
    MaggieCat
    ,
    And if we’re going for cute, cleaned up versions, there’s a kids’ book (by Gail Carson Levine?) in which one of the fairies’ gifts was to be smarter than anyone else, ever. This turns the princess into an insufferable know-it-all and no one wants to talk to her because she can’t help spouting off useless trivia. She falls asleep for 100 years, yadda yadda, and the prince of the new ruling family a century later is an insufferable questioner, always asking “Why?”. He goes to wake the princess up because he heard she could answer his questions. And they lived happily ever after.

    OMG, I CANNOT TELL YOU HOW MUCH I LOVE THAT IDEA. Six-year-old-me* would have set out on a quest to find me some fairies to knock me unconscious just so people would stop telling me to be quiet if there was the chance someone would truly appreciate it at the end.

    Must find that book.

    * (I was one of those kids who’s convinced that everyone needs to know everything she knows right now. Hell, I’m still that person who goes off on random tangents with the least provocation. In retrospect, I understand why this is not the best strategy for elementary school.)

  15. says

    MaggieCat,

    It’s Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep by Gail Carson Levine. And heh, I was one of those kids too. Adults thought I was adorable and kids thought I was weird. Unfortunately I didn’t find this book until I was an adult. Or perhaps fortunately, because I didn’t need any more encouragement to be odd. :)

    Although now I kinda want to read about a six year old on a quest to find some fairies…

  16. Dani says

    Sylvia Sybil

    MaggieCat,

    And if we’re going for cute, cleaned up versions, there’s a kids’ book (by Gail Carson Levine?) in which one of the fairies’ gifts was to be smarter than anyone else, ever. This turns the princess into an insufferable know-it-all and no one wants to talk to her because she can’t help spouting off useless trivia. She falls asleep for 100 years, yadda yadda, and the prince of the new ruling family a century later is an insufferable questioner, always asking “Why?”. He goes to wake the princess up because he heard she could answer his questions. And they lived happily ever after.

    I liked Gail Carson Levine’s version of Cinderella (Ella Enchanted – the book, *not* the movie); Ella/Cinderella is given a “gift” by a fairy when she is born, and that is that she will always be obedient and has to do whatever anyone else tells her to, and it makes her into a bit of a rebel, because she’s always finding ways to try and break the curse and disobey.

    Side note: Just picked up The Stepsister Scheme! Super excited to start reading! :D

  17. says

    Dani,

    GCL writes a lot of awesome stuff! She does a lot of fairy tales; she also redid Cinderella (as a man) in Cinderellis and the Glass Hill. Most of her MCs are strong women, and I don’t just mean strong in the cookie cutter “kickass” sense. The heroine of Two Princesses of Bamarre never does anything more violent then run away, but standing up to her phobias takes more strength than all the dragonslaying in the world.

    As far as Ella Enchanted, I find it helps to think of the book and movie as two entirely separate stories. The movie is decent enough if I pretend I never read the book. This goes for Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, too. Lovely movie, gorgeous graphics, but they ripped the plot apart and sewed it back together upside down and sideways.

  18. Raeka says

    Sylvia Sybil,

    Ohhhh, I loved The Two Princesses of Bamarre! Much as I adore strong, kickass (for real, not faux!Action) women characters, I also adore the more realistic, scared-out-of-your-mind-but-going-ahead-somehow heroines as well. It was one reason I adored Sunshine by Robin McKinley..

  19. Dani says

    Sylvia Sybil:
    Dani,

    GCL writes a lot of awesome stuff! She does a lot of fairy tales; she also redid Cinderella (as a man) in Cinderellis and the Glass Hill. Most of her MCs are strong women, and I don’t just mean strong in the cookie cutter “kickass” sense. The heroine of Two Princesses of Bamarre never does anything more violent then run away, but standing up to her phobias takes more strength than all the dragonslaying in the world.

    As far as Ella Enchanted, I find it helps to think of the book and movie as two entirely separate stories. The movie is decent enough if I pretend I never read the book. This goes for Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, too. Lovely movie, gorgeous graphics, but they ripped the plot apart and sewed it back together upside down and sideways.

    The Two Princesses of Bamarre is probably my favorite from her! I love the focus on a heroine who isn’t stereotypically strong or brave, but has to face her fears anyway.

    Re: Ella Enchanted I saw the movie before I read the book, so I liked the movie more than I would have otherwise (usually I’m like “They changed WHAT?!” :P), but, yeah, I usually have to separate the book and movie if I’m going to like the movie.

  20. says

    :D I bought the stepsister scheme off bookdepository as soon as I saw someone here mention it a while back. Still not had time to read it but I’m looking forward to it!

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