Jackson Pearce’s latest offering, SWEETLY, is a companion to 2010’s SISTERS RED, a dark, twisted retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. While you could say this is Pearce’s version of Hansel and Gretel, that’s too dismissive. This is a cleverly rendered mystery starring two siblings running from their past who cross paths with a candy maker and a woodsman. Okay, that sounds like Hansel and Gretel. But here’s why it’s better.
Gretchen and Ansel have left Washington because their stepmother has had enough of them. Their father is dead, their mother passed away, and long before that, they found themselves in the woods as children, along with Gretchen’s twin sister. All Gretchen and Ansel remember is that something followed them, and they all tore off running; when they got back to the house, their sister was gone.
So while it’s terrible to be kicked out of your house, driving across the country feels like a well-deserved fresh start for the siblings. Then they hit some bad luck when their car breaks down in Live Oak, South Carolina, and the kindness of strangers leads them to Sophia Kelly’s house and chocolatier. Ansel does some odd jobs for Sophia so that he can pay to fix the car, but soon the three of them have formed a small family unit, and Ansel and Gretchen adjust to their new lives in Live Oak.
But Live Oak is weird, and not just because it’s a small, almost deserted Southern town. There’s something Sophia is not telling them. There’s some reason why most of the people in Live Oak don’t like her, even though her candy is heavenly. And there must be something about the disappearance of Live Oak’s teenagers, and it’s not just that they’re fed up with living in a small town.
Even though the woods in South Carolina are nothing like the woods in Washington that took her twin, Gretchen can’t help but feel as if there’s some unfinished business in them. When she meets Samuel Reynolds, a hunter, he lets her know that she’s right. What Gretchen always assumed was that a witch is actually a Fenris, or werewolf, a transforming creature that hunts young women. Gretchen and Samuel forge an unusual friendship based on their shared interest in killing as many Fenris as they can.
Fans of SISTERS RED will recognize the mythology that already existed for that story, and they’ll also recognize some names. But if you haven’t read SISTERS RED, SWEETLY is still a good book. In many ways, it’s better than its predecessor --- the twists and surprises of the plot are more clever, and the back story is more interesting. However, because of its relation to another book without being a sequel or prequel, there are aspects of characters that are assumed and understood based on information from the previous titles, rather than Pearce creating a full, deep persona. Why exactly is Samuel so determined to hunt Fenris? I believe it’s because I’ve read SISTERS RED. But there’s nothing in SWEETLY that warrants my understanding. It also gives off what seem like obvious hints to the next book in the connected stories series, FATHOMLESS, due out in 2012.
Still, even with its faults, SWEETLY is a book that will draw you in. With just enough horror, fantasy, romance and realism in balance, it will fit the bill of many readers.
Reviewed by Sarah Hannah Gómez (firstname.lastname@example.org) on November 4, 2011