Book Review: Winterspell, Claire Legrand (2014)

January 21st, 2015 12:58 pm by Kelly Garbato

A Dark & Dangerous Reimagining of The Nutcracker

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads’s First Reads program. Please note that there are clearly marked spoilers near the end of this review. Also, trigger warning for rape.)

Our stories say that when the human world was first made, not all of it fit.

Pieces fell off the whole, like too much dough being stuffed into a small pan, and those bits dropped into cracks and were forgotten. Our stories, the oldest ones, the ones most people no longer remember, say that my country, Cane, is one of those forgotten places, hidden away in some cosmic pocket of existence, for the most part separated from the human world, but not entirely. Tenuous links connect the two worlds – like certain traveling songs, and hidden doorways, and magic, if you’re able to use it.

New York City, 1899.

Though more privileged than most, seventeen-year-old Clara Stole’s family suffers under the rule of Concordia, a powerful gang of thugs, politicians, and businessmen (well, mostly men) whose corruption and thirst for power threatens to suck the city dry. Her mother Hope fell victim to the violence that plagues the streets, poor and wealthy alike; nearly a year ago, her bloated, mutilated remains were found by the river, her body marred by strange symbols. In his grief, father John hit the bottle hard, leaving Clara to run the household and care for her younger sister Felicity.

Worse still, without Hope’s positive influence to counter the pull of Concordia – to whom John pledged loyalty in exchange for his post as Mayor – Hope’s death has only served to strengthen their grip on John…and the city.

With the help of an eccentric family friend known as “Godfather,” Clara has spent the past year cultivating a double life; training in stealth and combat, ostensibly to track down and punish her mother’s killer, while maintaining outward appearances as a prim and proper Victorian debutante. No small feat, when the eyes of the nefarious Dr. Victor seem always to be upon her.

The situation comes to a head when her father, in an ill-timed crisis of conscience, threatens to walk away from Concordia, thus drawing the gang’s wrath in the form of an assassination plot. But before Patricia Plum, the so-called “Queen of Concordia,” can follow through on her threat, a “monstrous fever dream” comes to life, right there in the Stoles’ ballroom. At the center of it all is Godfather – and the man-sized statue from his workshop, Clara’s long-time secret confidant. Along with the sky, the fabric of the statue is splitting, rupturing, changing – revealing the real, live man inside. “A curious dichotomy, this hard and soft, this hot flesh and cold steel. The familiar and unfamiliar, man and metal.”

Before she knows it, Clara is following Prince Nicholas into his own world, Cane, in search of her father – who she must retrieve if he is to be killed as planned on New Year’s Eve, lest Dr. Victor turn his sadistic attentions on the twelve-year-old Felicity. (Yes, this is a rather dark and twisted story.) In Cane she must contend with maleficent faeries – including their half-blood Queen, Anise – indifferent mages, and hostile humans if she and her father are to emerge alive. But her foes also come from within: betrayed by some of her closest friends, Clara struggles to sort fact from fiction, sincerity from self-serving lies. A product of her restrictive upbringing, she must also overcome the shame and self-doubt that have plagued her most of her life. (Or at least since hitting puberty, thus drawing the unwanted attention of sleazy, leering men like Victor.)

I won’t reveal more because spoilers (and really, the discovery is so much fun!), but suffice it to say that Winterspell is a dark, dangerous, and downright twisted fairytale retelling. It’s very loosely based on The Nutcracker, which I’ve never seen and only have a passing knowledge of; hence, the many wild variations didn’t bother me a whit. However, if you’re expecting a somewhat faithful adaptation, you might be disappointed. Or pleasantly surprised! Hey, you never know.

The world building is fantastic (there’s even a map on the inside front and back covers!), but I especially enjoyed Clara’s character development, as well as her interactions with some of the other characters – particularly Nicholas, Anise, and Godfather (and not necessarily in that order). Once Clara arrives in Cane and learns of her true origins, she grows from being an anxious, awkward teenager to a more confident, self-assured woman. She grows up. (Winterspell is many things – fantasy, adventure, romance – and, yes, a coming of age story.) But this change doesn’t just manifest in her kickassedness, no siree. One of the beautiful things about Winterspell is that Legrand tackles rape culture head-on, but without being heavy-handed about it.

New York City Clara has learned to hide her grown-up body, as it’s a source of shame and, often, harassment. Dr. Victor frequently leers at her, and Clara internalizes the blame: if only she hadn’t been sparring with Godfather, sweating through her top, or caught wearing scandalous clothes. By “misbehaving,” she somehow invited Victor’s humiliating comments. If only she’d acted “better,” more proper, Dr. Victor would have left her alone. This, of course, is victim-blaming, and it’s complete poppycock. Dr. Victor mistreats Clara because he’s a sadist and a misogynist. Period.

Once she arrives in the more sexually liberated (in some ways, anyhow; the subjugated humans are drugged and used as sex slaves by the faeries, and that can hardly be called progressive, body-positive attitudes aside), Clara becomes more comfortable with her body: not just the outward appearance of it (which she’s forced to expose when posing as a “doxie,” or prostitute), but the physicality of it, and how powerful an instrument it truly is. Surprisingly (or not, once you’re aware of the plot twists), Anise proves to be a mentor on this front, urging Clara to embrace her body, as wonderful and unique as it is: “No. Don’t be ashamed. They’re just bodies, and they’re ours, and they’re powerful.”

This brings me to my most favorite aspect of Winterspell: the unexpected homoerotic subtext between Clara and Anise. I really shipped these two. Hard.

* begin spoilers! *

As much as I loved watching the relationship between Clara and Nicholas develop – one day, your pretend boyfriend comes to life! imagine the possibilities! oh, the stories that statue could tell! – once he so much as entertained the thought of betraying her, that ruined the ship beyond repair for me. I had expected that Legrand would dismiss the conversation Clara overheard as a politician placating his followers; of course Nicholas wouldn’t bind Clara to him against her will, effectively enslaving her for the rest of their lives. What kind of monster would do that to the woman he loves? But no: he was serious. And that should have been the end of their romantic relationship. There’s just no recovering from such a fundamental breach of trust, imho.

Which brings me to the 4-star rating (4.5 stars, rounded down to 4 where necessary). While I mostly adored Winterspell, the ending just didn’t sit right with me: Clara’s decision to bind with Nicholas, and her eventual return to Cane – and him. I had really hoped that Clara would find a way to reach Anise, to bridge the gap between faeries and humans. No one species deserves to rule Cane, since they have each – during their respective rules – committed atrocities against the other. But two two-blooded Queens? Now they just might be the start of a representative democracy. Or something. (I don’t really get the obsession with royalty, okay.)

* end spoilers *

Despite these reservations, Winterspell is a new favorite. Thus far Goodreads lists two companion novellas in the series (a prequel and a sequel), but whether or not Legrand decides to continue Clara/Cane’s story in full-length novel form…I’ll be happy either way. Of course I’d love more, but it’s also nice to begin and end a story with a standalone novel sometimes.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Not much. One or two random people on the street are described as “dark-skinned” in passing, but otherwise there’s little/no racial diversity. However, there’s a strong homoerotic subtext to Clara’s interactions with Anise. (Totally ship those two harder than Clara-Nicholas, all things considered.) Given how their relationship plays out, I’m not sure what message – if any – this sends about same-sex couplings (i.e., it never progresses past the taboo, and ultimately Clara is forced to repudiate Anise, who – unlike Nicholas – is deemed beyond redemption).


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