In The Stepsister Scheme, Jim Hines introduced us, or rather, re-introduced us, to three of the best-known fairy-tale characters: Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, known respectively in the book as Snow, Danielle, and Talia. When Talia used her deadly fighting skills to save Danielle from a murderous attack by one of Danielle’s step-sisters, then joins with Danielle (wielding a glass sword) and Snow White (wielding mirror magic learned at her evil stepmother’s hands) to rescue Danielle’s kidnapped husband, Prince Armand, you knew this was not your father’s fairy-tale.
Now Hines, and his three “kick-ass heroines” are back in The Mermaid’s Madness, which, as the name implies, spins out of the tale of the little mermaid who fell in love with a human and then sacrificed herself for him. “Yeah, right” says Hines, who keeps the mermaid, the love, and the human, but this mermaid — Lirea — is just a little mad (OK, a lot mad). She has killed her human lover, her father, one sister and is seeking the other; she carries a knife that can suck the soul from one’s body, is leading the merfolk (undines) into war against humanity, and comes with a grandmother who has been practicing powerful magic for centuries and who has her own schemes within schemes that may or may not include curing her granddaughter’s insanity. Oh yeah, and Lirea has severed Queen Beatrice’s (role model and deeply loved mother figure to all three heroines) body from her soul, giving Snow, Danielle, and Talia about two weeks max to find a cure for Beatrice and a solution to Lirea.
The story starts out with a bang with Lirea’s sudden attack and Beatrice’s possibly mortal injury. It slows somewhat after that and I admit to wishing it had a faster pace and a bit more action in the first third. There is a lot of traveling from place to place, which partly contributes to the slow pace, and the traveling is done via ship, which also doesn’t help — shipboard settings don’t offer a lot of potential for action. And because this is happening in near real-time due to the two-week deadline (no pun intended, well, maybe intended), Hines can’t be as selective in what he shows as he was in The Stepsister Scheme, where he could move three weeks along in a sentence or two. Here, he pretty much has to show us everything. But the story picks up in the middle third and then becomes extremely fast-paced and active in the latter part.
What compensates (mostly) for the lack of fast-paced action in the beginning is the same strong characterization that made The Stepsister Scheme such an original re-use of the source material. As in the first book, Talia is the most compelling of the three: her barely-controlled violence, her dark background, and, in this book, the blooming revelation that she is in love with Snow all coalesce into a character whose presence greatly increases the tension and intensity of any scene. Snow is also well-developed throughout as she wrestles with her use of magic — its inherent dangers and temptations —, her sense of self (particularly in comparison to her stepmother), and the discovery of Talia’s feelings. Danielle isn’t quite as strong a presence as the other two, partially for the simple reasons that her talent — speaking with animals — is neither as flashy as Talia’s fighting skills and Snow’s magic nor is it always at hand as with the other two. That said, she has perhaps a more subtle growth than the other two as she starts to further assert her political rather than magical powers — her role as Princess and future queen of an entire country.
The Mermaid’s Madness comes to a resolution of its particular crisis, so can be read as a stand-alone, but it also sets up many questions for future works. As Talia says to Danielle at one point — “just because your story had a happy ending, it doesn’t mean everyone’s does.” And that’s true here as well. As mentioned in my review of The Stepsister Scheme, Hines is working with these fairy tales more in their original darker colorations — the real Grimm tales — as opposed to the pastel of Disney or Perrault. There are dark issues underlying all the light-hearted romping going on in The Mermaid’s Madness and the ending, while resolved, can’t be written off as nicely happy. It’s Hines’ mix of the light and the dark and the familiar and original, that make this such an engaging series. Recommended.