Mermaids aren’t always nice. In fact, most of the original stories depict them as evil half-women, half-fish beings that lured men to their deaths in the watery abyss. As always, disneyfication turned what was a wonderfully dark, fantastical tale into something sweet, happy and sappy.
So it was with great pleasure that I turned to Jim C. Hines second book in his “Princess” novels, The Mermaid’s Madness. Returning to the characters from The Stepsister Scheme Hines gets to the root stories, brings out what made them great, and then spins them into a fully realized narrative all his own.
Danielle – married, a mother, and formerly known as Cinderella – is intellectually and emotionally stretched by the duties of her role as princess and future queen. One of those duties is a bringing of gifts to the undine (merpeople) in a ritual ceremony of friendship between Lorindar and the local undine tribe. But what should have been a simply and straightforward shipboard ceremony soon turns ugly when Queen Beatrice is attacked by a strange mermaid who has both human and undine attributes. Though Talia, Snow White, and Danielle do their best, only Beatrice’s body is saved, though her soul has been stolen by the knife which nearly killed her. What ensues is a battle between powerful peoples on land and by sea that is much more politically convoluted than at first glance.
Hines was always a good writer but with The Mermaid’s Madness he is really coming into his own. His first trilogy of “Jig the Goblin” novels was a humorous dungeon crawl with a great unlikely hero. But the story was always small in scale and straightforwardly plotted. Even The Stepsister Scheme had a limited number of surprises and followed a predictable course. The Mermaid’s Madness goes beyond what Hines has written before to show that as much as he is a humorist, he is also an epic fantasist with a flair for adventure.
The novel moves quickly with lots of action and the story reminds me a great deal of some of the early work by Mercedes Lackey in her Valdemar universe. Too, Hines continues to create great humor by writing banter between his main characters as David Eddings often did. Like Eddings, Hines uses the banter to humanize characters that are moving in and among world changing events. The Mermaid’s Madness is like a great Dragonlance novel by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, full of world shattering events and interesting characters packed tightly with adventure in just a few pages.
Hines has also worked on his characterization. The growth of the characters is more natural, and though the characters have a basic nature/motivation, they also move beyond it to begin to understand each other better. For some readers who have read The Stepsister Scheme they may be pleased to note that the love relationship between Talia and Snow White takes a step forward. And Hines is definitely moving out of stories that are safe for young readers into more adult fiction. This is due to significant use of and awareness of sexuality, though with a sardonic bent, as if he is mocking himself for including elements of many men’s fantasies.
The Mermaid’s Madness is really enjoyable and exciting adventure fiction. Hines is proving himself to be more than a “midlist” writer and I hope the publishing houses recognize the star they have in him.