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The Kingdom of Sweets: A Novel of the Nutcracker


The Kingdom of Sweets: A Novel of the Nutcracker

Erika Johansen, the bestselling author of the Queen of the Tearling series, returns with her first stand-alone novel, THE KINGDOM OF SWEETS. And just in time, too, since this dark, atmospheric fantasy retells Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic, “The Nutcracker.”

Born shortly after midnight on Christmas Day, Clara and Natasha Stahlbaum are identical twins whose bond is nearly severed when Godfather Drosselmeyer, a local sorcerer, bestows them with a terrible gift. Clara, he states, will be “Light,” all that is good, rosy-cheeked and shiny in the world; Nat will be “Dark,” sporting a dull face and none of the charm that her bright sister possesses. True to Drosselmeyer’s threatening gift, the girls become polar opposites. Clara, gorgeous and shapely with a childlike sense of wonder, is invited everywhere, and her dance card is always full. Nat, meanwhile, grows up short and lumpen, occupying the corners of dances, her nose almost always buried in a book. But while Clara sees joy and whimsicality around every corner, Nat has developed a more discerning eye. She is so accustomed to being ignored and fading into the background that she has become adept at reading people…except for those closest to her.

"If Christmas and Halloween joined ranks to create a new in-between holiday with all the magic and sparkle of Christmas and the spooky, sinister vibes of Halloween, that holiday would be THE KINGDOM OF SWEETS."

On the night of the girls’ 17th birthday, their family is preparing to throw their annual soiree, but they are not at their best: Clara has recently discovered that she is pregnant, the result of an entanglement with a servant, and Nat is suffering from an unrequited love. One year ago, she and Conrad, the son of a duke, fell into bed together --- and kept falling for 12 months --- but while everyone around her can see that her crush is fruitless, she is too lovelorn.

Later, Drosselmeyer arrives, decked in a sapphire blue suit and cloak and surrounded by his horde of beautiful, wild young boys. He tells the girls that he has brought them gifts, and when he opens his boxes, three horrifying creatures emerge: a beautiful ballerina who won’t stop dancing all around the ballroom; a grotesque, evil-spirited toy clown that moves as if unbound by the laws of wood and mechanics for Nat; and a cheap, worthless nutcracker doll for Clara. Each of the toys has been magicked, but while Clara’s dashing nutcracker performs pleasing tricks, Nat senses that the clown has deadly plans for her. Her discomfort is amplified when the true reason for the soiree is announced: Clara (in need of a quick engagement to hide her illicit pregnancy) has been betrothed to none other than Conrad. And she knew exactly what this news would do to her sister.

When night falls, and Nat thinks her heart is just about to shatter, a mist rises in the house. From every corner, she can hear the scratching of mice and the flutter of curtains; most hauntingly, she sees a dark, looming shadow that follows her around every corner. Before Nat can wake up Clara, the two are transported to a serene, crisply white countryside covered in snow so fine it almost looks like sugar. As Clara races off in a carriage helmed by her nutcracker-turned-prince, Nat follows behind, dead-set on vengeance. The girls, unbeknownst to them, have arrived in the Kingdom of Sweets, ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy. Nat is quick to suspect another one of Drosselmeyer’s tricks, but while she feels certain that Drosselmeyer would have cooked up an elaborate, fantastical gift for Clara, she knows one thing to be true: he never would have included her. No, she determines, someone else has erected the magical kingdom around them.

While the Sugar Plum Fairy is, at first glance, a benevolent, gorgeous creature, Nat can sense the darkness in her. While Clara delights in rose bushes made of marshmallow and a creek full of jelly, Nat and the Fairy make a bargain: vengeance for vengeance, Clara for Drosselmeyer. But as any good fantasy reader knows, all magic comes with a cost, and a bargain with an evil fairy has no good outcome.

If Christmas and Halloween joined ranks to create a new in-between holiday with all the magic and sparkle of Christmas and the spooky, sinister vibes of Halloween, that holiday would be THE KINGDOM OF SWEETS. Johansen has taken her source material and not only turned it on its head, but used it as a vehicle to explore timely, skewering questions about beauty and identity. At the same time, she crafts deeply memorable characters whose nuances, flaws and ambitions are each beautifully, tenderly wrought against a backdrop as dark and creepy as a graveyard at midnight. The combination is spellbinding and totally magical, but also surprisingly sophisticated, a gothic fantasy that leans into the horror of original fairy tales without losing its grasp on the very real implications of its magic system.

Johansen has turned all of the most famous characters in “The Nutcracker,” from Drosselmeyer to Clara to the Sugar Plum Fairy, dark and manipulative. Even Nat, our protagonist, can never really be deemed “likable.” Still, the magic and the emotion, not to mention the finely wrought character work, are so propulsive that you simply have to read on.

If you find the holiday season a bit too sickeningly sweet but aren’t quite ready to call yourself a Grinch, THE KINGDOM OF SWEETS will not only meet you halfway, but convince you of the magic of the holidays. And if you’re the merriest little elf of your household, you’re still sure to delight in Johansen’s cleverly conceived fantasy world, as well as her encouragement to look beyond the classic and ask, “Why Clara?”

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on December 9, 2023

The Kingdom of Sweets: A Novel of the Nutcracker
by Erika Johansen

  • Publication Date: November 28, 2023
  • Genres: Fantasy, Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton
  • ISBN-10: 1524742759
  • ISBN-13: 9781524742751