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Review: Winterspell

Review: Winterspell

Title: Winterspell
Author: Claire Legrand
Published: 2014
Length: 454 pages

My star rating: ★ ★ ½

Clara Stole, seventeen-year-old daughter of the mayor of New York City, has struggled to keep her family together in the year since her mother’s brutal murder. Despite being illicitly trained in fighting techniques by her godfather Drosselmeyer, Clara lives in fear of Concordia, the organized crime organization to which her father belongs. At her family’s Christmas party, she overhears  Concordia’s plan to assassinate her father and marry her off to one of its most sinister members, the perverted Dr. Victor. But her Godfather crashes the party, and at midnight Clara discovers that she has more than Concordia to fear–and to fight.

Note: I hope you all had a great holiday season because we sure didn’t. This is my last new read of 2015 (60 books this year!), though my plan is to reread Hannibal this week. If I don’t get that reflection up before the end of December, I wish all of you a very happy New Year!

This is a very dark, strange, twisted novel. In case you aren’t familiar with the names, it’s also a retelling of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, also the basis for Tchaikovsky’s Christmas classic, The Nutcracker ballet.

I am a Tchaikovsky and Nutcracker lover, so I was eager to snap this up and read it in December. I needn’t have bothered.

After the first hundred pages, there is nothing remotely festive or otherwise holiday-related about it. Indeed, after the Stoles’ Christmas Eve party, it becomes difficult to find many traces of the original story at all.

A few quick nitpicky things first, and then onto the real review: I know this is a retelling and all, but why keep some original names (Drosselmeyer, Clara*) while changing the family’s surname (Stahlbahm to Stole)? And why transform Clara’s brother Fritz into a sister, Felicity?

*Hoffmann’s heroine is called Marie, but the ballet often calls her Clara.

This book was not merely a disappointment. It was a clusterfuck. On some level, I thought it worked as an intriguing if underdeveloped high fantasy novel. But it also kept trying to fit into the historical fiction, crime, and dystopian genres as well as being a (supposed) retelling, like the author just couldn’t decide. And the fantasy was very…well, steampunk, I suppose? In New York the year is 1899, but the fantasyland of Cane is quite technological despite having decidedly medieval undertones.

Are you confused yet?

In short, Clara is the daughter of a made man and a philanthropist, the latter of whom was murdered before the story begins. Talk about the Odd Couple. Her father John is falling to pieces, and though her godfather Drosselmeyer is tutoring her in stealth and self-defense, she is as skittish and as helpless as a rabbit around the members of Concordia. Then, on Christmas Eve, her Godfather brings his life-size statue  to the Stole home, claiming that “the wards have been broken.” Surprising no one familiar with The Nutcracker, the house is invaded by rat-like creatures at midnight, whereupon the statue becomes a living man called Nicholas. Nicholas is the lost prince of Cane, a world entirely separate from our own, and he offers to take Clara there to find her father, who has just been kidnapped.

That’s the last time Winterspell is really recognizable as a Nutcracker retelling.

Claire Legrand does a good job at world-building in Cane. This small kingdom, which “fell off” the rest of the world when it was made, has its own myths and history, of which readers get tantalizing but brief glimpses throughout the book. Its tense race relations–mostly between fairies and humans–eventually erupt into war. Years later, the magical “two-blood” (half-fairy, half-human) Anise becomes the Queen of Cane by force, and she begins transforming Cane into a half-mechanized nightmare. Some of the seedy human neighborhoods in Cane reminded me of Blade Runner: very dark, impoverished, and crime-ridden. Anise’s court, meanwhile, read like the Capitol in The Hunger Games: bright, colorful, flashy, and deadly.

I also that all the modern technology in Cane was strange, but not necessarily that it didn’t work.

In short, Cane intrigued me, but it didn’t seem particularly unique–more like it was a patchwork quilt made up of bits of other fantasy and science fiction worlds.

Clara’s New York was quite one-note. It was all things dark, dank, dismal, and depressing. Clara lives in constant fear. Concordia, whose members include not only Dr. Mengele Victor but also a character called the “Merry Butcher,” has an iron grip on the city. Even the homeless shelter Clara opens in her mother’s name is subpar. Even though they took up less than a fourth of the overall novel, the NYC scenes dragged terribly as well. I was very glad to escape it.

I think Ms. Legrand is more than capable as a writer, but her character development needs serious work. The characters almost ruined the book for me.

Clara, the heroine, literally has no personality. I kept waiting for her to develop one in some way, but no. Nada. She’s nothing like the tenderhearted, dreamy girl of the story/ballet. As YA heroines go, she is relatively active–though only once she arrives in Cane–but that’s all she really is: a body that does things (and that is lusted after by pretty much everyone). It also frustrated me that in some situations, she behaves and speaks like a Victorian young lady, but in others she sounds and acts as modern as can be. She also shrilly blames almost everyone for her mother’s death, which got old fast. And did I mention she’s a redhead…and secretly Special? Of course she is. This is YA fantasy! I would say she seemed like a ripoff of Gemma Doyle (another secretly Special Victorian redhead whose grief-stricken father turns into a useless drunk after her mother’s murder), but Gemma actually had a personality. And a brain.

Clara was such a non-character throughout the novel that I had a hard time caring about the plot, too, especially the plot she left behind (but fretted about endlessly) in NYC.

Drosselmeyer, Clara’s toy- and clock-making godfather, had the potential to be a well-rounded character, but he lacks the spunk and eccentricity that  would have made him truly compelling. There is also something off-putting about his relationship with Clara, which does not always seem as paternal as it ought to. (He’s not quite the Littlefinger to Clara’s Sansa, but it’s the same vibe. Since Ms. Legrand claims that without the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “unique production,” her book “might never have [been] written,” this doesn’t surprise me. Drosselmeyer is pretty creepy in that one, too.)

Nicholas, the Nutcracker prince of Cane, didn’t do it for me either. I appreciated his concern for the common people and his vaguely sarcastic sense of humor. His intense and immediate interest in Clara is a little unsettling, though, even if he did “know” her as a Nutcracker statue. (To be fair, I’ll admit that Clara’s somewhat sexual interest in statue!Nicholas is also unsettling.) He does a number of shady things once in Cane that made me constantly call his sincerity into question as well.

Bo is a human girl in Cane who quickly allies herself with Nicholas and Clara. She’s spunky, resourceful, and fun. It’s just a shame there wasn’t more of her.

Anise, the (mostly) evil Queen of Cane, is easily the best character, even though she is physically a carbon copy of Disney’s Queen Elsa. She is ambitious, controlling, often sadistic, but she can be almost sweetly childlike at times. She feels alone in the world as its only “two-blood” and clings to her power by force. At least she had more dimensions than the totally flat NYC villains. She has the most complex relationship with Clara as well (not that it’s any less strange and troubling than any of the others); it’s never clear what she wants Clara to be: her friend, her pet, her lover? Whatever it is, it’s clearly unhealthy–Anise is manipulative and cruel towards Clara as often as she is tender and gentle–but it’s also fascinating:

“Are you charming me?” …

“I would not dishonor you with such a deception.” Then a sleepy smile, a soft caress. “Not you, dear Clara. I suppose you truly love me.”

Love? As Anise drifted back into sleep, Clara thought it over, troubled. No. Not love. Not yet. But certainly fascination and empathy, and the potential for something more. Something overpowering, something magnificent and electric. Love? Clara turned away from the world. The queen held her close. Warmed, Clara let her eyes fall shut. (321)

This and the other scenes between Anise and Clara crackle with obvious (sexual?) tension. As I said, it’s a very unhealthy relationship, but I was hooked nonetheless.

I can, however, understand why some people might be frustrated or made uncomfortable by this part of the book. It neither advances the plot nor the characters, and there’s also a lot of nudity and pretty (but revealing) clothes…and, well, violence.  I just wanted more of Anise, since no one else was interesting enough to read about.

The other characters were totally forgettable (Clara’s sister Felicity), pathetic (John Stole), or so flat-out Evil and Twisted that they failed to be in any way interesting (Dr. Victor).

The result of was that I only finished the book for the sake of finishing it…and for seeing Anise a few more times.

It wrapped up entirely too quickly. (The climax was very Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and lasted for about a page. Worse, Clara had to do virtually nothing to prevail, because reasons.) It was unsatisfying and rushed. At least the New York conclusion worked a little better.

As a standalone original high fantasy story–set entirely in Cane and with a better MC–this book might have worked well. With all the time and detail she put into world-building (instead of progressing the plot in a timely fashion), it felt like that’s what Legrand wanted to write, anyway.

But as a retelling of The Nutcracker with dual NYC/Cane plots and a Mary Sue as its MC, it fell rather flat. And while the original Hoffmann story is rather dark, Legrand’s is disturbing on every level. It kind of made me want to take a shower after I was done.

Maybe it’s my own fault for having such high hopes. Alas, they were dashed fifty pages in. Too long, too convoluted, and too much time spent on the badly-written characters instead of on developing the interesting fantasy world. I can’t recommend this one, especially not for the faint of heart.

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