In 19th-century New York City, power lies in the hands of an organisation known as Concordia, with Clara Stole’s father as its figurehead mayor. When Mr Stole is no longer willing to put up with Concordia’s actions, two of its ringleaders, Mrs Plum and Dr Victor, make plans to assassinate him at his New Year’s Eve speech, informing Clara that if she interferes they will torture and kill her younger sister, Felicity. After he is abducted and taken to another land, known as Cane, Clara must bring him back by Concordia’s deadline and find a way to prevent his assassination. She is assisted by the enigmatic Nicholas who, it transpires, is the heir to the throne of Cane.
Sometimes with these portal stories it can be hard to integrate the primary world character into the secondary world narrative, while at the same time preventing it from feeling like that character has completely abandoned her own world. Winterspell takes the common route of giving Clara a family connection to Cane, but rather than using that as the reason for her participating in a revolution, her involvement in Nicholas’ revolution is really incidental, part of her efforts to find her father and bring him home. She helps Nicholas in exchange for his help, and she confronts Anise to rescue her father. At the same time, Clara’s hunt for her father is informed by events in New York, because she must return him to face Concordia’s ‘justice’ before New Year’s Eve in order to protect her sister from their wrath. The storylines in the two worlds are interwoven with one another; not only must Clara find her father in Cane to protect Felicity, but it is her time in Cane that gives her the skills to protect her father from Concordia.
Clara’s driving motivation throughout the novel, then, is very straightforward: find her father, protect her sister. And, I think, it has to be this way, because everything else gets rather complicated. The world of Cane has its own rich history of backstabbing, racism and uprisings, and every character’s motivations are equally complex; at varying points the same people use Clara for their own ends, they mistrust her, and they help her. At one point it’s not clear whether Nicholas, the returning king, is truly the best ruler for Cane, or if the usurper, Anise, whose reign has been fraught with cruelty, might not have the capacity to be a genuinely good ruler. Much is made of the way royal children in Cane are raised with warfare and violence, and Clara questions how anyone brought up that way can be anything but ruthless and cruel, not without having the chance to learn there is another way to be. The faeries of Cane are vicious and cruel, much like those of Celtic myth, but so too are the human rulers in Cane, and the human rulers in New York. The book draws parallels between characters like Mrs Plum and Dr Victor and Anise’s court, but also between Anise and Nicholas.
One of the ways the book underscores the parallels between Anise and Nicholas is in their relationships with Clara. Both have romantic feelings for her and, while I appreciate that the narrative is never judgemental about Clara’s reciprocation of Anise’s feelings, there is something that doesn’t quite sit right with me about it. I can’t really explain it without giving away spoilers, but I don’t feel right recommending the book without discussing it, so skip the next paragraph if you don’t want spoilers.
Like I said, Anise and Nicholas both have romantic feelings for Clara, who, to a greater or lesser extent, reciprocates them at various points. When Clara is with Anise, the narrative starts to suggest that maybe the solution to Cane’s problems is for Anise, with Clara at her side, to choose a gentler, kinder form of governance, and that Nicholas is just as cruel and selfish as Anise is at the moment. However, ultimately Anise’s only redemption is in death, with Nicholas reclaiming his throne and Clara’s heart. While I found Anise to be a fascinating, sympathetically-portrayed character, a lonely woman as much a victim of society as anyone else, I found it troubling that Clara’s heterosexual love interest was ultimately the one validated by the narrative.
Reservations aside, I found Winterspell a darkly atmospheric retelling of The Nutcracker, filled with complex, morally ambiguous characters that effectively links Clara’s two lives in New York and in Cane into one suspenseful, gripping narrative.
Nicola’s favourite season is winter, and her favourite way to spend it is in front of a fire with a good book. You can find her on Twitter.