I promise this will be the last time I talk about a Nutcracker book during a time other than Christmastime. At least for this year. Anyway.
Indeed, the spree of reading Nutcracker-themed books comes to a close with Winter Dream. After my previous read was such a disappointment, I hoped this one could pick up the slack, especially since this book’s summary seemed to follow the traditional Nutcracker story quite well. In a weird way, I wanted there to be little to no surprises with this particular iteration: not after the last story botched it up so much. Turns out there were a few surprises, but at least entertaining ones.
18-year-old Clara Stahlbaum lives in high society in St. Petersburg, Russia. The only problem is that her childhood is slipping away. Her best friend has recently married and talks of nothing but her doting, simping husband. Worse, Clara’s parents may possibly arrange a marriage to a viscount whom Clara despises. Then, on Christmas Eve, Clara receives a special nutcracker soldier from her Uncle Drosselmeyer, which whisks her away to the magical realm of Winter Dream, where the nutcracker reveals himself to be a cursed prince. Only true love from a human girl can break the spell, but the Mouse King is on the move, so there is no time for sugarplums and romancing…
Winter Dream, similar to The Enchanted Sonata, stuck with the traditional Nutcracker story beats, albeit with a lot less backstory and a lot more atmosphere. Winter Dream is indeed a place of splendid beauty and magic, and it wraps around you like a warm blanket and a plate of fresh gingerbread cookies. It might have a touch more Christmas flavor than any other Nutcracker retelling I’ve read, which I won’t complain about (obviously, I’m fine talking about Christmas in the midst of summer).
I might also like this Clara the most. She treads the line between adulthood and childhood where she still dreams of fairytale romance but is mature enough to know what she wants from life. She feels just enough like a child without being annoying and enough of a grownup for a more grown-up reader to relate to.
On the other hand, I’m a little torn with my feelings about this book’s Nutcracker.
You see, I liked the dimension that Sonata‘s Nutcracker had. He could be a little lazy and irresponsible, but he made up for that with his kindness and genuine drive to prove himself. This Nutcracker kind of feels like the standard good guy who simps after Clara just because she gave him one kind look. There is a lot of soft speaking: murmuring, whispering, a lot of tender glances toward Clara.
While that doesn’t make for the most dimensional of characters, I much prefer a sugarplum like Nutcracker to a brooding loner who never laughs or smiles. I like my characters full of heart and joy, in spite of the darkness around them.
And, in a way, that was kind of the same characterization that E.T.A. Hoffman’s Nutcracker had. After all, it was a children’s fairy tale, where complex characterization came second to the wondrous, magical adventure. I could see this Nutcracker in a ballet, with the soft looks, graceful movements, and elegant beauty
I will also give this Nutcracker’s design credit. Rather than being a full-blown wooden Nutcracker, the curse has turned him into a hybrid Nutcracker-human where his body looks human but his skin still feels kind of wooden. It’s like how you could see the human beneath the Beast in the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, which makes him more intriguing.
This book’s greatest strength, though, is its atmosphere. Winter Dream feels like such an ideal, magical place that you wish you could spend a night in the Nutcracker’s castle or Mother Ginger’s inn, with a huge bed and a roaring fire and warm fresh bread in the morning…it’s kind of a balm for a weary soul.
That atmosphere is eerily similar to the Nutcracker ballet for me, which is a holiday staple. I look forward every year to losing myself in a world of glittering fairytale costumes and music that strongly evokes all childhood dreams. This book doesn’t exactly match that atmosphere (no one can match the genius of Tchaikovsky, let’s be real), but it evokes the ballet just enough to be comforting and warm.
In fact, if you wanted a book that feels so purely Nutcracker, this is the best one I’ve found so far. It doesn’t go too dark, nor too fluffy. It retains almost all the original story’s elements, including the struggle with the Mouse King, who is still a seven-headed mouse here.
Not a whole lot differentiates this book from the original story, except for one or two original elements. But like I said, I was looking for a standard Nutcracker retelling: nothing grim or sexual. I’ve read Nutcracker retellings that go that route and I did like them (ahem, Winterspell), but for once, it was nice to see this story told like a family fairy tale: innocent, romantic, and magical.