Winterspell by Claire Legrand is a YA fantasy stand alone novel that is a retelling of the classic Christmas tale, The Nutcracker. The description alone and the whimsical wintery cover had me so excited to spend some of my December in the world of Cane but I can honestly say I have never been so disappointed in something that initially seemed so promising. I had numerous issues with the book which I’ll outline below but if you would also like to see a video discussion of the book you can watch the most recent episode of the Spines with Wines Book Club. The first issue is that Winterspell has little to do with The Nutcracker. The author took this magical story and twisted it into something that is completely different, and not in a good way. I understand wanting to stray from the source material in order to create an original story, but without being told Winterspell is a Nutcracker retelling, it would be near impossible to draw any parallels between the two tales.
The biggest issue that I had with Winterspell is the overabundance of sexualization within the story. Our main character Clara begins training with her jealous and overprotective Godfather at a young age and he instructs her to “press oneself to a wall’s contours and slide along it… like you would a lover.” She also develops feelings for a statue, “Something, she often thought, alone in her bedroom, like need,” and she would send her Godfather away so she could share private moments. With a statue. That makes her feel heat when she touches it. I kid you not. Said statue happens to come to life a little later on and his first suggestion to Clara is that they both take off all of their clothes. We also have the Dr. Frankenstein-esque Dr. Victor who is not only a pedophile, but he also takes pleasure in torturing little orphan girls by chopping them up. Then there’s Anise, the fairy queen and the only character I actually liked, who immediately invites Clara to sleep in her bed and shares kisses with her. The entire time I was reading I did not get the impression that Clara is of an age where all of these adults should be trying to take advantage of her. It definitely happens in real life and that type of story has it’s place, but how it’s connected to The Nutcracker is beyond me.
The first hundred something pages of Winterspell are spent describing Concordia, the corrupt government in New York while Clara lives and the majority of it drags on and feels irrelevant to the story. Then once Clara is transported to Cane, and we reach Book 3, the Summer Palace, the story actually becomes interesting. Until we get to Book 4. Once Clara returns to Concordia, everything is tied up there within 30 pages which seems like too quick of a resolution after being about half the book. The two things I will give Claire Legrand are that 1) her writing style is quite lovely and if the plot and characters had been completely different I could see myself having liked this book and 2) she did a great job of world-building with Cane. The characters who are intended to be the “good guys” have morals too questionable and make mistakes too large to ever be redeemed in this reader’s eyes and I would love if I never had to read about a character like Dr. Victor for the rest of my life. I also really disliked Clara as a main character. I had completely ambivalent feelings toward her the whole time I read and once I finished and spent some time reflecting I realized how much she bothered me. She is extremely contradictory in nature, and she gives up on finding her father too quickly once she realizes she has all this extra time in Cane to hang out at a brothel with her new friends.
Final Thoughts: Winterspell by Claire Legrand is a YA retelling of The Nutcracker which follows a little girl named Clara after she’s transported to Cane. If you’re looking for a whimsical and uplifting holiday read, this is not the book to pick up. The characters have very questionable morals (even the “good guys”), the main character is oversexualized beyond reason, she also has feelings for a statue and the overall story is a chore to get through. If I hadn’t had to read this novel for book club, I would’ve given up very early on. Not my cup of tea!
The clock chimes midnight, a curse breaks, and a girl meets a prince…but what follows is not all sweetness and sugarplums.
New York City, 1899. Clara Stole, the mayor’s ever-proper daughter, leads a double life. Since her mother’s murder, she has secretly trained in self-defense with the mysterious Drosselmeyer.
Then, on Christmas Eve, disaster strikes.
Her home is destroyed, her father abducted—by beings distinctly not human. To find him, Clara journeys to the war-ravaged land of Cane. Her only companion is the dethroned prince Nicholas, bound by a wicked curse. If they’re to survive, Clara has no choice but to trust him, but his haunted eyes burn with secrets—and a need she can’t define. With the dangerous, seductive faery queen Anise hunting them, Clara soon realizes she won’t leave Cane unscathed—if she leaves at all.
Inspired by The Nutcracker, Winterspell is a dark, timeless fairy tale about love and war, longing and loneliness, and a girl who must learn to live without fear.