By the second reading, I’d worked out how to describe this book when recommending it. It’s a bit like a cross between Hugo and Redwall, without really being like either at all. While this is technically a retelling of the story of the Nutcracker, I believe it could stand alone even if a reader had no previous knowledge of the stories and ballet it’s based on.
Sherri L. Smith is one of those rare authors who seems to write many genres well. You might recall my review of her historical fiction Flygirl, and the dystopian Orleans is one of my favorite books (though I’m still struggling to review it). She’s also written several contemporary novels that I haven’t gotten to yet, and this piece is a middle grade fantasy retelling.
I think it’s because her writing spans several reading levels and genres that she isn’t better known. While some of her books are more diverse, based on the setting and descriptions of this one, I’d assume that most of the characters are white.
The book is divided into three sections: The Toymaker’s Apprentice, The Prince of Mice, and the Nutcracker. Though the book is on the longer side for MG, the chapters are short and the action keeps the plot moving swiftly. Initially there are two characters for the third person limited viewpoint: the toymaker’s apprentice Stefan Drosselmeyer and the well educated rat Ernst Listz. As the story progresses, several other characters are added in, all after they’ve been introduced to the reader through one of the two initial characters.
Although this is based on the Nutcracker story, Smith has fully created her own world and I felt like the details and plot were interesting even outside of the retelling aspect. Although this is a fantasy story with talking mice and magic, there is also a steampunk aspect with the astounding mechanical devices Stefan learns about and creates. In particular, I was left wanting to know more about the clockmaker’s guild.
For those who have read and enjoyed the Nutcracker, or are familiar with the ballet, there are all kinds of delightful references to the story without some of the distressing racial undertones. One of the main characters is Arab, and I was initially concerned about how that would be portrayed, but Smith seems to have handled it well. (Please leave a comment if you know of any #ownvoice reviews that address this element.) There’s a small nod to the different ethnic dances without the condescending tones sometimes present. One adult character is a former foster youth who has positive associations and connections with his foster family.
Smith also includes the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, frequently referenced among the kingdoms of Rodentia. I sort of hope that she’ll write another book along these lines telling the story of Hamelin or continuing the main character’s story. There’s so much of her world left unexplored!
Although this is a middle grade fantasy, I think it can span a wider age range of interest. There were a few points that seemed obvious to me from an adult perspective but will likely be more surprising to younger readers (particularly the ending of chapter 28). Other than a kiss and some mild references to romance, there wasn’t anything inappropriate for younger readers who can handle the stylized violence of the battles between mouse and man. Stefan’s mother’s funeral is the first scene of the book and a few characters die, so be forewarned if you have a sensitive audience.
On the other hand, this is also a rare middle grade book that will appeal to teen readers. While we could assume that Stefan is younger than high school (I don’t think his exact age is given in the text), having completed his apprenticeship puts him on a functional level with young adults. Especially if this is on the shelf next to Smith’s YA books, most readers would assume it’s for them.
Adults might be a tougher sell, but those who enjoy fantasy or retellings are likely to become interested in Stefan’s grand adventure.