Here’s a funny little story.
Way back in June, the uncanny mood struck me to search for young adult book versions of one of my favorite stories ever, The Nutcracker. I don’t know entirely why: I guess I just needed a soul-deep influx of Christmas cheer, magic, romance, pageantry, and childlike wonder. I found so many books that I thought maybe I would have a Christmas in July on this blog, where I just reviewed winter or Christmas-themed books (The Christmas Room would have been part of that timely, if corny, theme).
Anyway, the first book I read in that lineup was Heather Dixon Wallwork’s The Enchanted Sonata. I was particularly excited for this one since Ms. Wallwork is an animation and story director at Disney, so maybe she would have the same storytelling prowess that the company has shown in their original works.
15-year-old Clara Stahlbaum is a gifted pianist, enchanting crowds with her talents. She dreams of her upcoming Christmas concert when she will play for her idol and crush, the handsome Johann Kahler. The morning of the concert, she receives a book that tells the story of a strange, magical world called Imperia, and a handsome nutcracker doll. Through a magical, musical spell, Clara is swept into Imperia, where giant rats have invaded, the children have transformed into toys, and the emperor-to-be prince has gone missing. It seems only music can break the spell, and maybe only Clara can do it…
Throughout this book, I was continually drawn back to Barbie in the Nutcracker (this is relevant, I promise). While I have a fond nostalgia for that movie, it did have one problem with its story: before the Nutcracker became who he was, he was said to be a useless, lazy, irresponsible prick. Yet, we never see any evidence of that in the film. We never see a flashback or any behavioral indication that he did not care about his people. The Nutcracker is nothing but brave, selfless, and kind. So…where was that lazy young man who had to become wood to become someone better?
The Enchanted Sonata follows a similar story arc: before the prince becomes a wooden toy, he is a little selfish and lazy. He’s not despicable; he just has some growing up to do. However, unlike Barbie’s Nutcracker, we actually see who the prince was, and why he was set up to fall under a magic spell. That way, we feel a lot closer to the Nutcracker and see why he yearns so much to do right by his people.
In short, this book fixed that story problem…just, in another medium. It’s nothing special, but it’s enough to make us feel for a young man yearning to make up for past mistakes.
Since we’re on the topic of characters, Clara is another serviceable addition. She’s the chosen one whose musical skill can supposedly break the spell over Imperia. While I believe how well she knows music (it seemed Ms. Wallwork put her music minor to good use here), there wasn’t much else to set her apart from other Claras in other Nutcracker stories. I almost wish Clara were older, like in her early twenties; at least old enough to not be so quickly enchanted with the nutcracker toy.
Although, I guess she still had to be young enough so that her crush on Johann Kahler would not feel obsessive or childish. After all, crushes can seem like the real deal at fifteen.
That said, this book truly feels like a Nutcracker story. From the rats, to the Russian architecture and culture, to the candy and chocolate-heavy economy…it harkens back to the enchanting, child-like wonder of the original Land of Sweets. There’s a beautiful fairytale quality to it, without any gratuitous darkness. It’s unapologetically inspired by the ballet, and I did not mind that at all.
I also like that this story combines The Nutcracker with the Pied Piper story. The villain of this book is a strange musician who plays magical music on his flute. Depending on the song, his music can turn children into toys, transport people across worlds, and even bring light or darkness into being. It’s a nice touch that helps separate this retelling from the rest, and also pays homage to the Nutcracker ballet’s legacy.
For many people, including me, The Nutcracker fully comes to life with Tchaikovsky’s sweeping, magical, iconic, beautiful score, and I can think of few other stories that have come to life so completely. The score is so iconic that you almost cannot separate the ballet’s imagery from the accompanying music.
In this story, music has magic. If the Nutcracker ballet has lasted this long, it undoubtedly is one such example of that magic. I always say that books and theater are the closest things we have to real magic, but it seems music is too. Anyway…
All in all, this Nutcracker retelling tries hard to match the magic and pageantry of the ballet. There are some decent action scenes (Nutcracker and Clara’s escape from the rats on a runaway train was pretty cool), the central relationship is sweet, and there are enough changes that it doesn’t feel like a carbon copy. It won’t make your heart soar like the ballet does, but it’s a nice bedtime story, even when it’s not Christmastime.