I received a digital copy from Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review.
What a darling Christmas read this was! I know it sounds silly to use the world “darling” to describe something, since this isn’t Victorian England, but seriously, that’s how adorable this story was. If you don’t know anything about the original Nutcracker story, it’s about a girl who receives a toy nutcracker for Christmas and dreams that she and the nutcracker journey to fantastic worlds together; evil rodents are the constant antagonists. The original novella was written by German author E.T.A. Hoffman, and the very popular Russian ballet by Tchaikovsky was based on it.
Anyway, The Enchanted Sonata is less of a close retelling and more of a homage to the original story, with elements of “The Pied Piper” added in. The main character, Clara, is a fifteen-year-old girl living in late-nineteenth-century Germany with her mother and younger brother. Her father, who spent a lot of time at the piano with her, passed away a few years earlier, and music is her strongest remaining connection to him, which is why she wants her life to be filled with music in every way. She even imagines a special connection with Johann Kahler, whom she has never even met, because his music has a healing effect on her spirit. But as Clara practices an original piano composition on Christmas Eve to impress him at the Christmas concert the next day, she is taken away to Imperia, a wintry nation that is something of a charming cross between Russia and Candyland, where her adventures begin.
Clara’s backstory is paralleled alongside Nikolai’s, the prince of Imperia. He, too, lost his father as a child and wants a chance to prove himself worthy of the Emperor title before receiving it at his upcoming coronation. Be careful what you wish for. The Pied Piper figure of the story also thinks Nikolai needs to prove himself before becoming emperor. So what does the piper do? Use his magical music to change all of Imperia’s children and soldiers into toys, of course — including Nikolai. Now unrecognizable in a half-human, half-toy state, Nikolai must anonymously save his people, who are now more vulnerable than ever to the gigantic, destructive rats that populate their forests. But he’ll need Clara’s help.
Clara and the Nutcracker’s budding bond is sweet and believable — the first moments when Clara meets him as a silent, normal-sized toy; their tiptoeing politeness that gives way to shared laughter, grief, and the mission; the adorably awkward I-think-I-kinda-sorta-like-you moments; and even a couple of fights, which are realistic rather than arbitrary romantic conflict. What’s more, in these arguments, Clara shows the Nutcracker his flaws, and he shows Clara her flaws, which allows each character to deny and eventually confront their own problems. All of these problems are ultimately rooted in their grief over their fathers, and watching their joint healing process unfold is poignant – Clara and Nutcracker become friends, support each other, believe in each other, and ultimately must do away with some of their most closely-held but most problematic notions about life and people in order to overcome something bigger than themselves. It sounds like heavy stuff for a book that I called “darling,” but even though it’s emotional, it’s not overwhelming at all. The story balances emotion, light moments, and fast-paced action very well. Tonally, the story has the cozy feel of a classic Christmas movie.
If I had to pick a flaw for this book, I would just say that it could benefit from a bit more copy editing, but other than that, the execution of this story was wonderful. I can’t wait from more for Heather Dixon Wallwork.
Check out my interview with her, as well as my review for her first novel, the lovely Entwined.