Me oh my, is my reading lineup eclectic this month: first, a Halloween read with Jekyll and Hyde, and now a winter read with Winterspell. That is not intentional though. It just so happened that personal and worldly anxieties drew me to pick up, to my knowledge, the only YA retelling of The Nutcracker there is. It doesn’t matter if it’s Christmas or not; The Nutcracker warms me right up like a cup of hot cocoa and a holiday fire. Even the version where there is blood, drug addiction, and near-gratuitous nudity.
Clara Stole’s family is in huge trouble. Her father has gotten himself entangled in the New York City crime empire of Concordia, where every day, Clara and her little sister are in dire peril. The only place Clara can escape to is the strange shop of her Godfather, Drosselmeyer, where he teaches her to fight and sneak—all in the presence of a statue that, for some reason, Clara has always felt drawn to. But on Christmas Eve, when mechanical rats attack, Clara is taken to the magical, broken land of Cane, led by the statue, a cursed prince named Nicholas…
If you’re looking for sugarplums and fairytale dances, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Winterspell is chock full of blood, depravity, and betrayal. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t fascinating to read. The world building is elaborate enough that I pick up new details with every reread. The world of Cane is more steampunk than magical, as mechanical rats and bugs crawl the streets, and the people there are fashioned into half-human-half-mechanical things. There is still plenty of magic between all the mages and faeries, but the mechanical element is a nice touch.
It might sound elementary of me, but I love stories where a character starts out shy or meek, but a magical journey shows them how to be brave. Clara has one such journey here, and it is satisfying watching her transform. She has to navigate a cruel world at home, but an even crueler one in Cane. She doesn’t have a lot of help in either place, which means she must be self-reliant. I like how she is smart and tough, but still has a soft spot for her family and for Nicholas.
Clara and Nicholas have an interesting dynamic, though. Nicholas has spent a good chunk of time as a statue in Godfather’s shop, watching Clara grow up, and listening to her whisper Nicholas secrets. During that time, Clara never realizes that Nicholas is alive, but she has a secret fantasy of the statue coming alive and holding her; there is a long-building heat between them. While they do have some legitimate conversations together once Nicholas is freed, their relationship is, ironically, built on time where they were separated by Nicholas’s curse. I suppose that could technically be wish fulfillment, but it works.
Now, something that really irks me is Anise, the antagonist. She is a faery queen who keeps her people in line by providing them with “sugar” (a heroin-like drug), and changing the cityscape to her whim. She is like a petulant child who pouts and yells when she doesn’t get her way, and is also moody, physically aggressive, and promiscuous. It is established that faeries can charm their victims, and when Clara and Anise share emotionally-charged scenes, it is never clear whether Clara is being charmed, or if she is legitimately turned on (for lack of a better phrase) by Anise. It’s fascinating to ponder which of the two possibilities is true, but there is no denying that Anise is a compelling antagonist, if only because she is unpredictable and enigmatic.
There is definitely a more sexual overtone to this story. Clara, Nicholas, and Anise all find themselves naked in each other’s presence at some point, for reasons good and ill. But it helps create a sense of dread and uncertainty that makes Clara’s journey through Cane more difficult. It is also what pushes Clara to be more confident in herself. It’s difficult to put into words, but the discomfort of nakedness is good for the reader, even if it sometimes comes close to being gratuitous.
I know I stated in my Ella Enchanted review that some updated fantasy stories just need fun characters and a clever story to work. But sometimes, using blood, war, and overt sexuality to push you into a place of discomfort and confusion works too, on top of a compelling cast and excellent worldbuilding.