The Sisters Grimm: The Fairy-Tale Detectives, The Unusual Suspects, The Problem Child, and Once Upon a Crime

Grimm 1 By Michael Buckley [The Sisters Grimm at LibrarythingThe Sisters Grimm at Amazon]

Jess and I decided that our co-written review for HP7 was so much fun, we wanted to do it again! And since this series was, at least in part, the inspiration to start this site, it seemed like a great series to co-review. So here we go!

Since their parents disappeared a year and a half ago, Sabrina and Daphne Grimm have been shuffled from foster home to foster home. That is, until their grandmother, a woman they thought was dead, comes out of the woodwork to claim them. Granny Relda tells them that they are descended from the famous Brothers Grimm – and what’s more, that all of the characters their ancestors wrote about are real, and living in the girls’ new home of Ferryport Landing. Soon Sabrina and Daphne are running from giants, eating dinner with the Big Bad Wolf, and matching wits with Puck, the Pied Piper, and Prince Charming. Granny Relda is eager to train the girls to follow in her footsteps as fairy tale detectives, but for Sabrina and Daphne there’s one mystery that’s the most important of all: can they rescue their parents from the fairy tale conspirators who kidnapped them – without falling into the bad guys’ clutches themselves?

Grimm 2 Jessica: Okay. The thing you have to understand is that we love these books. When I found the fourth book on the shelves of a bookstore before the official release date, I totally jumped up and down excitedly before buying a copy for each of us. We are waiting with bated breath for the fifth book, which comes out in December. We are big Sisters Grimm fans.

All that said…the books aren’t that good.

The concept is fairly brilliant – two little girls solving fairy-tale-related mysteries! awesome! – but the execution falls down in some major ways. Most of these ways have to do with Sabrina, the focus of the series’ limited third person perspective.

Rebecca: Sabrina in and of herself isn’t a bad character; she’s only eleven, and she’s got a responsibility complex from the loss of her parents and having to take care of seven-year-old Daphne. She’s also quick to temper and would rather punch than talk, but again, that’s understandable given her situation. The problem is that the arch of every book is Sabrina Learns A Lesson. In all four, she’s given an abruptly applied attribute (Sabrina needs to learn to trust! Fair enough. Sabrina learns not to be racist! Well, good, except see Jess’s note on that. Sabrina learns that addiction is bad! Gosh, no kidding.) And it gets exceedingly annoying. And then, as all this is going on, there are some obvious lessons she should be learning, but completely misses. Like listening to Daphne–Daphne gets the Everafters (fairy tale characters) in a way Sabrina doesn’t, and her instincts are right more often than not. And yet, despite the myriad times Daphne’s been correct, Sabrina ignores her, gets something wrong, gets in trouble, and swears she really will listen to Daphne next time. And then utterly fails to do so.

Jessica: Plus there’s no consistency to Sabrina Learns A Lesson. In the second book, where Sabrina is Learning A Lesson About Racism, there are several asides like this: β€œShe hated when magic was used to fix problems, especially when the problem involved humans.” In the third book, where Sabrina is Learning A Lesson About Addiction, she becomes addicted to magic. Say what?

Plus, Sabrina’s racism in the second book isn’t entirely unjustified. This is of course not to say that racism is ever okay, but the concept doesn’t map well onto Everafters. At that point she’s only encountered Everafters she thought were good guys but who turned out to be bad guys, or Everafters she thought were bad guys who turned out to be good guys, or Everafters she thought were bad guys who turned out to really be bad guys. Plus she knows some Everafters are responsible for kidnapping her parents, and quite a few Everafters want her entire family dead (thanks to a long-ago conspiracy to overthrow humans, the Everafters are trapped by a spell in Ferryport Landing as long as a Grimm remains in the town). Buckley doesn’t show that Everafters are largely good or even neutral; Sabrina doesn’t walk away from the first book with a single good feeling about any of the Everafters, and thus neither do we as readers. Why shouldn’t she be prejudiced against the people who’ve been traumatizing her for the past hundred pages?

Grimm 3The kicker, though, is that Sabrina doesn’t actually shake her prejudice. She realizes that Mr. Canis, her grandmother’s best friend and bodyguard and, not incidentally, the Big Bad Wolf, is a member of her family and that she loves him. She relaxes around major supporting players like Puck (more on him later), Hamstead (one of the Three Little Pigs), and Snow White. Yet when she discovers that there are Everafters in New York City, where she grew up, and that her mother, a Grimm by marriage (like Granny Relda), helped these city-dwelling Everafters in secret, she feels physically ill. She is literally sickened by the idea of Everafters in her hometown, and infuriated by the suggestion that her mother might have been sympathetic towards them. No, Sabrina doesn’t shake her prejudice. She just shuts up about it, so that Daphne and Granny Relda can lecture her about the next book’s Lesson.

Rebecca: So there’s that. And then there’s the other major, sincere flaw with Sabrina, which is that as a heroine…well, she’s not very active. Or rather, she runs around a lot, and she manages to get herself in trouble frequently, but Sabrina is utterly unable to get out of it. At least once a book–the more adventure there is, the more often it happens–she’s rendered utterly helpless or comes up against an enemy she can’t face, and someone has to come save her. More often than not (in fact, almost always), that someone is Puck. Which is annoying in and of itself (we here at Active Voice like our heroines actively saving themselves, thanks) but is made infinitely more so because Puck is Sabrina’s romantic interest.

There are several problems with this. Let’s start with the basic: Sabrina is eleven. Puck, while technically hundreds of years old (Everafters are immortal, or so close that it makes no difference) is emotionally and maturity-wise eleven. The fact that there’s a romance in any way is disconcerting, as they’re kids. The book makes a big point of talking about how Sabrina is entering puberty, as a way to justify this, but it doesn’t work; instead, it just seems out of place and jarring. Most fantasy doesn’t include a, “What’s happening to my body?” lecture, and while I’m sure it could be well done, it, um, isn’t, and reads as only being there to justify an awkward romance. [Jessica: Plus, Puck is never shown to be entering puberty. And I don’t need to see my heroine coming up on eventual statutory charges, thanks.]

Grimm 4And the romance itself is played up more and more as time goes on, built up into something giant and inevitable and creepy. I normally enjoy a good all-they-do-is-bicker romance, since such things are built on loads of unresolved sexual tension, but being kids, there’s no sexual anything to it. So all they do is fight, and even that is annoying, because Puck always wins and Sabrina always ends up with mud in her eye (figuratively, and once literally). Which brings me back around to that point several paragraphs ago, which is that, since Sabrina and Puck are apparently in twu wuv 4evah, and he is constantly rescuing her, it takes her out of the role of being the hero and puts them both into traditional gender roles where he’s the knight in shining armor and she’s a damsel in distress. Which would be a mild irritation if the books were about Puck, but they aren’t; they’re about Sabrina, and her constant need of rescuing and their bizarre and mildly gross romantic subplot takes the story away from her.

Jessica: The fact that they’re terrible detectives doesn’t help with the whole “being active” thing. (I mean, you’ve got a little girl in a red cloak jabbering about her grandmother and you can’t figure out which fairy tale character she is? Really?) When you’re a detective who can’t figure out who the bad guy is until he starts monologuing, you don’t have much to do before the denouement but run around coming to erroneous conclusions. Which not only prevents you from being active, but makes you look downright stupid.

Rebecca: And–I swear we’re almost done with Sabrina now–there’s some strange subtext to the way Sabrina is treated, which is very, very easily overlooked when (as we did) you devour the novels quickly and don’t realize there are massive flaws until a later, closer reading. Specifically, of the two girls, Sabrina is the protector; she’s a tomboy who excels in gym class; she takes no attitude and is quick to fight. All of these are traditionally male-associated traits. On the other hand, Daphne is a peacemaker who spends her time on hairstyles, who concentrates very hard on being nice and sweet to everyone, and her hero and role model is Snow White (who is held up as the pinnacle of femininity through the series). The contrast wouldn’t be a problem at all, except that Sabrina is always wrong, and Daphne is always right; and Sabrina is frequently punished or humiliated for her masculine traits, while Daphne is rewarded and praised for her feminine ones. Combined with the books’ inability to switch Sabrina and Puck out of traditional gender roles I already mentioned, it taints the book with a subtle but disturbing message of reinforced gender roles, one which you would expect a series about a spunky female heroine to break out of.

Jessica: Yeah, the treatment of women is all over the map in these books. On the one hand, I like that the Grimm family is represented almost entirely by women. Relda is the matriarch, the girls’ mother was the secret Manhattan branch, and the girls’ themselves are, of course, the future of the family, while the girls’ father walked away from the job, and their uncle is basically a well-meaning screwup. Not only does that show a strong maternal line, it emphasizes the importance of choice in the Grimms’ lifestyle, as opposed to genetics. However, this motif of the male protector is continued through the series with the minor characters. Snow White does buck the trend as a martial arts expert, and Granny Relda’s reliance on Mr. Canis is understandable enough, considering her age, but Hamstead’s romance with a nightclub singer in the fourth book really tried my patience. Though she has a mobster boyfriend (a fairy godfather, and yes, the pun made me groan too), she falls for Hamstead after said boyfriend abandons her in a fire and Hamstead rescues her. Hamstead then has to fight the boyfriend multiple times throughout the book. It doesn’t seem like Bess’s love is conditional on who emerges victorious; still, the book doesn’t bother to, you know, point out that she doesn’t belong to whoever happens to win each fight. This is just how they roll in the Grimmverse, apparently.

Not cool.

Rebecca: Speaking of not cool…child abuse is not cool! I mean, no kidding, but man. So during the year in which the girls were believed to be orphans, they were stuck in a Dickens-esque orphanage, where they ate gruel and scrubbed floors. Every so often, their case worker would try and get them adopted, sending them out to foster homes where the parents turn out to be abusive, emotionally and physically; the girls are chained to a radiator, starved, and forced to work as slave labor. It’s reads as an attempt to capture a Harry-Potter-lives-with-the-Dursleys feeling, but fails. The series is largely about the contrast between the real world and the fantasy elements hidden from it, but to make that contrast work, the real world has to be, well…real. And in the real world, child abuse of the magnitude Sabrina and Daphne survive isn’t funny. It’s disturbing. Now, fairy tales are often disturbing, but whether Buckley was trying to capture that, or simply give the girls a wacky backstory to escape, it doesn’t work.

Jessica: Changing gears for a minute here. Now, lest you fear Rebecca and I are a total hive mind, there is one aspect of the books that we disagree on. As you’ve probably noticed if you’ve made it this far, Buckley doesn’t just use strictly fairy tale characters for his Everafters. There’s Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf, Prince Charming, and the rest of that crew, but he also uses public domain fantasy characters with strong pop cultural resonance. So we’ve also got Captain Hook, Dorothy Gale, the Queen of Hearts, and the Little Mermaid. At this point in the series I’ve gotten used to it, but I still don’t really feel that it works. With a story like Little Red Riding Hood, which comes from an oral tradition, you can say “This is how it really happened,” because, after all, there’s no ultimate authority. I’m extremely uncomfortable, however, with Buckley telling us how, say, Hans Christian Anderson’s stories “really happened,” especially since he gets so many of Anderson’s stories so very wrong. “The Little Match Girl” is not about a girl with magical matches, Buckley, it’s about a girl who dies of exposure. The Little Mermaid should not be a bitter, shrewish, grossly overweight (mer)woman who’s been eating compulsively ever since she was scorned by the prince, not when her story is about how sacrifice is inherent in love and that true salvation comes from loving, not by having that love returned. (I have issues with Buckley’s use of all characters with known creators, but he happens to really butcher Anderson’s, which is why I’m picking on those.)

Rebecca:On the upside, at least the grossly overweight Little Mermaid is still represented as being beautiful and graceful? But yeah.

But I have no real problem with the inclusion of non-Grimm-story Everafters–and I think it’s neat that there’s a brief reference to “the Anderson triplets,” who are apparently off doing about the same thing as the Grimm family, but the Everafters they’re chasing down aren’t confined to one little town. Which does make sense to me; we don’t know where the Everafters came from or why, so unless every single one of them happened to have been reported on by the Grimms, and then brought to Ferryport Landing together, it seems to make sense to me that there are more around…so why shouldn’t they also have been written about? This also works well with the series’s motif of fantasy being present in every day life, but hidden; there are still Everafters around, but only a few people, like Anderson, Shakespeare, and Baum, have noticed. So running into the Wizard of Oz didn’t phase me in the least.

Jessica: One last complaint, I promise. Does anyone remember the game Mousetrap? You know, you turned a crank that bumped a boot that kicked a bucket that knocked a ball down a ramp and it all ended with your mouse getting caught in a net? Elaborate Rube Goldberging is great for games, great for cartoons, and great for lighthearted Dick Van Dyke musicals. It’s not so great in prose. Puck gets at least one of the sisters with a prank like this in almost every book, and every time the humor falls flat. It’s like slapstick – it doesn’t work if you can’t see it.

Rebecca: Okay, and now the good stuff! The characters! Or at least, the characters who aren’t Sabrina. Daphne is delightfully adorable; she had won me over by the third page. Elvis, the family’s dog, is excellent–a character in and of himself without speaking, smarter than the average human, and very loyal. Mr. Canis is fantastic, and probably my favorite. He is, of course, the Big Bad Wolf, and as the series goes on the reader learns he’s one of the most infamous, powerful Everafters to ever exist. He has done very bad things (like, you know, murder) but has obviously, for some reason–and I’m hoping we learn why–reformed. His struggle to suppress his Big Badness is great; when he loses himself he’s terrifying. And the way the Red Riding Hood backstory is represented…wow! Seriously. Red is an excellent villain, because Buckley doesn’t forget that, while Canis is a protagonist, he murdered a little girl’s family; the background is used and not swept under the rug. And the supporting cast members–Hamstead, Snow, Charming, and a few others–are also all intriguing and well-written.

Jessica: Man, such word on that. Especially Red. She and her pet monster, the Jabberwocky, make for completely terrifying villains, as do most of the other baddies (most of which are twist endings, so I won’t spoil them here).

And it’s not just the villains. When I was little, I had a few beautiful clothbound fairy tale anthologies, including the hardcore Brothers Grimm versions, with the mutilation and the satanic pacts and the cannibalism and everything else horrendous those fellows pulled from the collective unconscious of folklore. I’d read the stories when I felt particularly brave, but those books did not stay in my room – they were too scary to be near with the lights out. They stayed way out in the living room, safely away from me.

I’m much bigger now, and even somewhat less scared of the dark than I used to be, but reading The Sisters Grimm evokes the same thrill of fairy tale terror in me that those old Grimm collections used to. They’re downright scary, as scary as real fairy tales can be, and that is the highest praise I can give to the tone of these books. Obviously we love them, considering how fast we plowed through them; they’re funny and exciting and interesting. But the scariness might be the hardest part to get right, and Buckley does it perfectly.

Rebecca: I think the thing about the books is that they’re so fun, and so readable, and so overall good that the problems stand out in stark relief against everything else. It’s easier to pick apart than praise, and there are many things to pick at. The flaws warrant discussion, but shouldn’t put people off from reading them: this is a series that will keep you gleefully entertained, and you’d better believe we will be buying the next book the day it comes out. But with good parts so good and bad parts so mediocre, we found ourselves unable to settle on a single grade. So these books get, simultaneously, two cupcakes for the gender issues and other not-so-stellar bits, and four cupcakes because what Buckley got right, he got really right.

    2,254 Responses to “The Sisters Grimm: The Fairy-Tale Detectives, The Unusual Suspects, The Problem Child, and Once Upon a Crime”

    1. Amanda says:

      i know and a ton of directors are the authors or publishers of the book and does anyone realize that, the brother is a missing hint towards the end!!!!

    2. cecilia says:

      hi do they really have a sisters gimm movie

    3. Marilyn says:

      GAH!Where is everyone? It’s been forever!
      Cecilia~{love the name} πŸ˜€ No. The movie is off for now. Buckley hopes it will be made someday.
      You know what I realized? That whenever I have to write a paragraph of or on a book that I like, I choose the Sisters Grimm? It’s so wierd, but Oh well. SBAs are coming up and I’m not excited.

    4. Alirenesmee says:

      I love the sisters grimm specially the part where puck and sebrina kiss

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