The Big Idea: Jim C. Hines

And here we are, with the first Big Idea piece of 2009. And who better to start us off than Jim C. Hines, who having already rehabbed cowardly green fantasy creatures in his Goblin trilogy, now turns his attention to rebooting the stories of three of the most popular fairly tale princesses in The Stepsister Scheme. But what motivated the reboot — and what does it have to do with a very popular Hollywood ogre? Jim lays it all out, once upon a time, that time being right now.


I’m putting out a hit on Shrek. No questions asked, and money is no object.

It was bad enough back in 2000 when I started writing my goblin books. “What a clever idea,” I thought. “Humorous fantasy from the monster’s point of view!” I had just finished the first book when previews for Shrek started airing.

Fast forward to November of 2004. I’m sitting with friends in a Chinese restaurant in Chicago, discussing my next series. “It’s an awesome idea,” I say. “I’m taking three princesses from the old fairy tales and putting them together in a Charlie’s Angels-type of team. Lots of fun, action-packed butt-kicking.”

Right as I finished The Stepsister Scheme, I saw the first previews for Shrek the Third. Previews which included Fiona and the fairy tale princesses in a Charlie’s Angels pose.

Remember the scene from Star Trek II when Kirk shouts “Khan!!!” with such hatred and fury that the sound carries into space? Let’s just say the astronauts probably heard my scream of “Shrek!!!”

Fortunately, Shrek the Third didn’t do much with the idea. My nemeses at Dreamworks were playing the princesses for laughs and a quick fight scene, whereas I wanted to go deeper.

The first step was to figure out the characters. Three princesses, each one bringing something special. I started with Snow White. The daughter of a powerful witch, Snow would have also inherited her mother’s mirror, making her quite the magical threat.

Talia, aka Sleeping Beauty, was princess number two. Cursed by a fairy at birth, Talia also received several potent fairy blessings, including superhuman grace and the ability to dance like an angel . . . two traits which lend themselves to hand-to-hand combat.

Finally we have Danielle, aka Cinderella. The tales tell how rats and doves would come to her aid, which was a useful trick. But she needed something more. If her mother’s spirit could grant gowns and glass slippers, why not an enchanted sword of glass? (Which is a minor spoiler, but since they painted Danielle with her sword on the cover, I’m not going to sweat it.)

It wasn’t enough. I knew what my princesses could do, but I still didn’t know who they were.

These women had been through a lot. Talia slept for a hundred years, and if you read the old tales, it was no “kiss of true love” that awakened her. (On that note, if I never read the phrase “He gathered the first fruits of her love” again, it will be too soon.) Snow’s mother hired a man to cut out Snow’s heart. Danielle spent most of her life a slave, though thanks to her mother’s spirit residing in the hazel tree in her garden, Danielle was never truly alone.

This was a start, but I didn’t want my characters to be defined by their traumas. Many people have survived horrible things. It may help shape the people we become, but it doesn’t define us. I needed to look beyond, to the choices my characters made. What would Talia do to the prince who “rescued” her? Would Snow fight her mother or try to flee? Once Danielle married her prince, would she use her newfound power to take revenge on her stepmother or would she try to forgive her? Who would they choose to become after the tales ended? This was where I finally started to know and love my characters.

Danielle, Snow, and Talia all feel real to me, each one not a symbol or a message, but her own person, with her own gifts and flaws. And I’ll match my princesses against that swamp-dwelling ogre and his friends any day of the week.


The Stepsister Scheme: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Visit Jim C. Hines’ LiveJournal here. Read an excerpt from The Stepsister Scheme here (pdf link).

48 Comments on “The Big Idea: Jim C. Hines”

  1. Yay, it’s out! Now you can stop perseverating on it, lol.
    Read this one a few months back. I still think the cover is just stunning. Lovely artwork.

  2. I’m a sucker for retold fairy tales, especially ones where the heroines aren’t simpering little wimps. However I was wondering how you decided to rename sleeping beauty and cinderella, but not Snow White.

  3. Hi Jess,

    All three princesses are also known by their fairy tale names. Danielle’s stepsisters still call her Cinderwench, while the general populace goes with the Cinderella. Talia is known as Sleeping Beauty, but she hates that name. (Talia has some anger issues.)

    Snow’s real name is Ermillina Curtana, but she prefers Snow, so that’s how most people refer to her.

    Talia’s name actually came from an alternate version of the Sleeping Beauty tale: Sun, Moon, and Talia ( ).

    So, more than you needed to know? ;-)


  4. Jon – I suppose that would help, wouldn’t it.

    I swiped this summary from SFRevu:

    This adventure packed novel starts where the traditional Cinderella story ends – Princess Danielle living happily ever with handsome Prince Armand. That is, until he is kidnapped. Alone, afraid, and carrying the heir to the throne, Danielle will do whatever it takes to bring her husband home safely.

    But The Stepsister Scheme doesn’t just pick up where the Cinderella fairy tale ends, there more fairy tale to cover. Princess Danielle teams up with Snow and Talia, who are not only members of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but are the famed Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, respectively. While Snow has her lighting fast reflexes, snowflake shaped throwing stars and an arsenal of magical spells, and Talia has her honed skills with swords and hand to hand combat, all Princess Danielle has is her undying love. Will love alone be enough when powers of dark magic abound?

    To find the Prince, Princess Danielle and her friends follow a lead to Fairytown, where every fairy is happy to help a mortal, for a price. Buried beneath Fairytown is the realm of The Dutchess, a woman filled with an ancient hatred and jealousy that has had centuries to ferment. The Dutchess has given quarter to Danielle’s stepsister, and their kidnapped prize, Prince Armand. Our three fairytale beauties must not only gain entrance to the Dutchess’s realm, but they will have to use everything in their power to resist the strongest of magical charms, powerful creatures, and raging jealousies.

  5. “This was a start, but I didn’t want my characters to be defined by their traumas. Many people have survived horrible things. It may help shape the people we become, but it doesn’t define us.”

    Outstanding! I just gave a little speech to a patient that was starting to tell me about some abuse he had suffered. I really respect this author’s attitude.

    The post reminds of one a few weeks past where we discussed whether or not people were broken. In light of this quote, broken is the wrong word. Bashed up, yep, broken, hardly.


  6. Danielle is the name of Cinderella in Ever After. Is that where you got it or did it come from an older version of the story?

  7. Jessica – Cinderella was the one character I couldn’t find a name for. So many of the old fairy tales just refer to “the beautiful girl” or “the princess” — even tracking down Talia’s name was a trick.

    I went with Danielle because the name had to fit with Cinderella, so I needed something with that “elle/ella” sound. I believe there are several other versions that have gone with Danielle or something similar for her real name.

  8. I like the “not being defined by trauma” thing. I’m a psych nurse, and I’m constantly working with people to get them through to that idea. Often, once they make that breakthrough, they get done with the serial hospitalizations, and get down to living :)

  9. I’ve only read a couple chapters past the review, but so far the book is quite unlike other fairy retellings I’ve read, in that there was a lot of action, humor, and some pathos—in the right amounts.

    As a person who you might call broken, I also appreciate (even just now) the lack of, shall we say, beautifully written wallowing, which I’m more used to from “dark fairy tales retold” type stuff. And I appreciate that it’s not portrayed as if those events in the past didn’t happen; anyone who blithely says it’s easy to get over these things deserves a kick in the face. You have to want to move past, and it takes a tremendous force of will to do that—and most people do not have it (but most people don’t need it in the first place, which is another matter).

    Danielle’s experience from the first few pages was extremely on point—emotionally of course; I didn’t actually have assassins, though I did get death threats—to my first few months trying to get out from my abusive parents’ influence. The right notes were hit; I haven’t seen post-trauma hit right since Terry Pratchett’s Nation.

    I expect to truly enjoy this book. These ladies have got what it takes—it’s wonderful.

  10. I asked my wife to order this one for me, only to find out she’d already done so.

    Reason #3,472.

  11. Very cool! I’ve been ogling my cool Stepsister Scheme bookmark from Borderlands for the past month. Can’t wait to pick it up.

  12. I notice that Goblin War is up at Fictionwise in the New Books this week and I’ve picked it up. Any chance of this one going up as well? These days, if I can’t get a Palm-stuffable copy(and no, I’m not getting a Kindle), a book might as well not exist because I’ll never get around to reading it, otherwise.


    Side Note to John: “Android’s Dream”?

  13. I following the intimation correctly, here? Sleeping Beauty was woken by date rape? That’s…umm, light-hearted isn’t quite the word. :(

  14. Jim,

    Having learned decades ago the validity of the old cliches of, “Never assume” and “The dumb question is the one that is not asked”, I’m curious as to what age categories you feel this book might fit. Specifically, I have a granddaughter who will be turning 10 in a few months for whom this might be a gift choice, depending upon the minimum maturity level you feel is suitable for your story. I’m fully aware that “fairy tale” is not a synonym for “children’s story”.

    FWIW, IMO her maturity level is actually 2-3 years older than her calendar age, but nothing like that of her sister – who will be 11 tomorrow and is probably closer to 21+ in literary maturity. If you think that “The Stepsister Scheme” is aimed at an older audience and might not work for my younger granddaughter, I’ll probably pick it up for the older one and give it to her on the next suitable occasion.

    With best wishes,
    – Tom –

  15. Hi Tom,

    That’s tricky. My own daughter is 8, and I don’t plan to give her the book for a few more years. (Even though it’s dedicated to her.)

    You’re dead-on about fairy tales not meaning little kid stuff. I did use the older tales for these characters, so there’s some ugly stuff in their backstories. I don’t spend a lot of time on it, but it’s mentioned.

    I’m not comfortable saying what people should or shouldn’t be reading. I will say it’s not particularly bloody or gruesome, and I had no hesitation at all when a friend’s 12-year-old wanted to read it.

    I don’t want to get into spoilers here, but if you’ve got questions, feel free to shoot me an e-mail at, and I can go into a little more detail.

  16. Geoffrey,

    Your guess is as good as mine. DAW is starting to do more with e-books, which is wonderful, but it means this is new territory. I have no idea why Goblin War is available in numerous formats, whereas Stepsister is only available for the Kindle so far. Nor do I know if they’re going to be making other formats available for Stepsister. I hope so, but I’m just the writer, so what do I know?

  17. I’m a good couple chapters into the book now, and it is quite satisfying and a great read.

    @WizarDru: Yes, in the old version of the Sleeping Beauty tale, she was awoken by rape. I wouldn’t even call it date rape. A lot of the fairy tales have been watered down over the years, and were very dark in their original form.

  18. And in one of the versions I’ve heard, WizarDru — she wasn’t awakened by the rape, but by the birth that followed it. (I think it was Perrault that cleaned it up all nice and chaste.)

  19. mac: and i read it was the babies (plural!) trying to nurse that woke her.
    but i’m breastfeeding a baby who’s teething, so my memory may be a little bit slanty at the moment.

    …do not get me started on the bit where the prince was actually already married, and bumping off the old wife was required for sleeping beauty to get her “happily ever after”…

  20. “Yes, in the old version of the Sleeping Beauty tale, she was awoken by rape. I wouldn’t even call it date rape. A lot of the fairy tales have been watered down over the years, and were very dark in their original form.”

    Nothing wrong with that (and I’ve seen plenty of such tales like that cleaned up over the ages), but that kind of sticks at odds with the cover and the proposed idea, a bit…at least to me. One looks like fun…but that element really sort of kills it for me. Bummer.

  21. Hey, Jim and hey, John,

    Jim, you can’t take a hit out on Shrek. My eight year old would hunt you down. Oh sure, he’s only got fake lightsabers and plastic swords, but if you’ve ever been poked in the eye with one….

    John, wanted to let you know that I’ve put Whatever on my list of favorite blogs. Sharing the love. Check it:


  22. Finished the book, and it was good to the last drop! I think now I’m going to have to check out the Goblin trilogy.

  23. I printed the first chapter and read it last night. I *must* get the book today! I have lots of friends I’ve already recommended this to who I KNOW will love it. I have a feeling we’re all going to love the Goblin trilogy, as well.

    (Jim, my condolences on the sudden loss of your dog. That’s tough.)

  24. Lucienne — I don’t know. My 3-year-old has innured me pretty well to plastic lightsaber whacks. But I’ll start carrying my Mace Windu saber around, just in case.

    BeVibe – thank you. This has certainly been a roller coaster of a week.

  25. Oh man. I need this book. It doesn’t seem to be out in Canada ’til the 13th though?

  26. The glimpse of this book is – tasty, you might say. I am definitely going to buy it. And _Red’s Tale_, too. And if I can’t get them in the shops here in Oslo, there is always Amazon…
    Do you think a more portable format may become available? I buy piles of stuff at Fictionwise (prc/mobi format) and would love to see these as well!

  27. Hey, John — there’s one point you and Jim did not mention in your review or discussion…

    I don’t have either the money or the shelf space to buy hardcovers, so, I was glumly expecting to wait most of a year to get it. But as it happens, I was just in Barnes and Noble, and discovered that the book isn’t just “new on the shelves”, it’s out in paperback! (Naturally, I grabbed it!)

  28. I found myself reading the web preview and becoming more and more “awww, yeah, I GOTTA read this now.”

    And then I found myself on ordering just about everything this author has written. Which hopefully should be here by Friday.

    I blame YOU, Scalzi.

  29. But where do you get hold of all these old, dark versions of fairy tales? I can only find the revised ones.

    (The book is on my “to buy” list btw)

  30. Badger@44 & others: Go to your library and search for Maria Tatar’s name. She has worked on books like Grimm’s Grimmest, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, and Off with Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood. Plenty there you’re looking for.

  31. Thanks a lot,

    I’ll spend some time at SurLaLune I believe. If I’m lucky I might find the Cinderella version where a fish in a well helps her :) somewhere on the net.

    Maria Tatar seems not to have made it into my library in Uppsala, Sweden, unfortunately. Amazon may solve that problem..

%d bloggers like this: