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Mary’s Pick of the Week: The Kingdom of Sweets by Erika Johansen

While The Kingdom of Sweets begins much like the beloved Nutcracker ballet, Erika Johansen has taken the characters and setting to make this story uniquely her own.

Godfather Drosselmeyer’s gifts are soon revealed to be curses endured by Clara and her family – including the fact that the traditional heroine Clara has a twin sister, Natasha.  Bookish and plain, Natasha is our guide through both turn-of-the-century real world and the magical world of the Sugar Plum Fairy.  When Natasha enters that world, the trees are dotted with sugar and the castle walls drip a sticky chocolate. But soon all that sweetness turns to rot as the fairy’s true motives are revealed. Natasha is compelled to choose the direction of her life: chart her own destiny in the real world or succumb to a life of decadent deceit in the land created by the Sugar Plum Fairy.

While the novel presents finely crafted three-dimensional characters, and moves along at a consistent light clip, it does get bogged down in some spots, which can be a test for even the most forgiving reader. However, the incisive social commentary and twisting conclusion more than make up for this minor shortcoming. 

Told with the backdrop of class conflict in a rich historical setting, the twins exist in a world of perceived plenty, but Natasha begins to see the reality in a world of creepy confected illusion.  She enters Drosselmeyer’s impressive mansion only to find that all is not as it seems: “Ivy had climbed the house, splitting the fine stonework, and the paint was peeling from the iron sculptures that lined the front walk.  I touched one of these sculptures, a pretty representation of a leaping deer, then withdrew my hand as a nest of dark spiders boiled from its marble base, swarming over the toe of my heeled boot.”

On the surface, The Kingdom of Sweets appears as a simple, dark retelling of The Nutcracker. But for the patient reader, it evolves into something much more sophisticated and sinister. Johansen explores the complexities of family dynamics, the constraints on women’s autonomy throughout history, and the ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the poor. With her plot-twisting, genre-bending prowess, she takes the reader on an unforgettable journey that will forever change the way you see Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet.

Photo: © Victoria Webb

Categories: Books and More

Tags: Books and More

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