This YA spin on the Nutcracker is just the ticket for a wintry night’s read…
Book: Midnight in Everwood by MA Kuzniar
Publication date: 13th October 2022 (in paperback)
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by HQ books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: violence, injury, and death (nothing particularly graphic); threats of slavery and implied threats of sexual assault.
There’s nothing Marietta Stelle loves more than ballet, but after Christmas, her dreams will be over as she is obligated to take her place in Edwardian society. While she is chafing against such suffocating traditions, a mysterious man purchases the neighbouring townhouse. Dr Drosselmeier is a charming but calculating figure who wins over the rest of the Stelle family with his enchanting toys and wondrous mechanisms.
When Drosselmeier constructs an elaborate set for Marietta’s final ballet performance, she discovers it carries a magic all of its own. On the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, she is transported to a snowy forest, where she encounters danger at every turn: ice giants, shadow goblins and the shrieking mist all lurk amidst the firs and frozen waterfalls and ice cliffs. After being rescued by the butterscotch-eyed captain of the king’s guard, she is escorted to the frozen sugar palace. At once, Marietta is enchanted by this glittering world of glamorous gowns, gingerbread houses, miniature reindeer and the most delicious confectionary.
But all is not as it seems and Marietta is soon trapped in the sumptuous palace by the sadistic King Gelum, who claims her as his own. She is confined to a gilded prison with his other pets; Dellara, whose words are as sharp as her teeth, and Pirlipata, a princess from another land. Marietta must forge an alliance with the two women to carve a way free from this sugar-coated but treacherous world and back home to follow her dreams. Yet in a hedonistic world brimming with rebellion and a forbidden romance that risks everything, such a path will never be easy.
I was never a fan of the story of the Nutcracker as a child, finding it a little bit creepy, but I’ve always found more modern retellings and reworkings of it interesting as an adult. Midnight in Everwood is a surprisingly dark, but very YA-fantasy-esque take on the story; I enjoyed the twists on the story a lot, but it wasn’t quite enough to unseat The Enchanted Sonata by Heather Dixon Wallwork as my favourite (see why I loved that one here!). That being said, this is a very different take on the story, and one that’s a bit more Nutcracker-inspired than a straight retelling.
This version of the story sees Marietta, a young woman from an upper class family, facing down the end of her freedom as she’s forced into a betrothal with the mysterious toymaker Drosselmeier. The claustrophobia of Marietta’s life comes across really well in the opening chapters, as does the freedom she feels when she’s dancing, and this is mirrored well when she accidentally flees to Everwood, feeling like she’s discovered freedom only to be just as controlled and limited by the whims of the King Gelum. Midnight in Everwood is at its heart a book about women pushing hard on the boundaries of patriarchy, trying to carve out space for themselves to live and be free; there’s a vividly uncomfortable atmosphere throughout as Marietta’s bonds tighten, which was very successfully depicted and a real strenght of the book.
This being a YA fantasy, there is of course a rebellion brewing, and a romance for our heroine – neither of these things were badly done (the Nutcracker figure, Captain Legat, is a decent guy and I liked his character) but they were just slightly… expected? I think the themes of the book might perhaps have been stronger if they hadn’t been present, as this would have been a more powerful story of women’s friendship and resistance, rather than feeling like the women just joined in with an existing men’s rebellion. Even the other characters roll their eyes at Marietta jeopardising their escape for the sake of one last kiss! I enjoyed the worldbuilding and twists on the retelling very much, but felt that it was undercut by these basic elements which I’ve seen in dozens if not hundreds of YA books.
My main quibble was that I just didn’t connect with the writing style – it’s not exactly bad in any way, but it just sits awkwardly, a little too ornate to be invisible, but not quite beautiful enough to feel deliberately flowery. It’s almost like it’s attempting to mimick an Edwardian style without actually being familiar with the cadence of it, so it just sounds a bit odd at times. Things started to make sense to me once I realised that MA Kuzniar is the same author who wrote The Ship of Shadows, a middle grade book that should have been 100% perfect for me (girl pirates!) but which I just had a similarly hard time falling in love with.
I feel a bit like I’m damning this with faint praise, but it was honestly a solidly okay read for me. If you’re in the mood for a snowy, atmospheric YA tale with lots of vivid food and ballet descriptions, a smattering of romance, and some well-depicted evil patriarchy, this is definitely worth checking out. Three out of five cats from me!