Not too long ago, I ventured into my local Barnes and Noble in search of a specific book I’ve had my eye on for many days. You know, for an early Xmas gift to myself. Though I scoured the teen section high and low, I couldn’t find it and resigned myself to missing out on the fairy tale re-telling goodness I was going after. However, then a strange mood hit me: on that day, I was damned if I was going to leave the store empty-handed! So after looping around the aisle a couple times, I finally picked out another book and left the store feeling apprehensive, but intrigued.
As it’s November and media has dictated that we should already be waist deep in mistletoe and and various other Decemberween/Festivus/etc. accoutrements, I was immediately drawn to something with that sort of holiday feel to it. But unlike many, I… never had any attachment to the story of The Nutcracker. Sure, I know the story and Tchaikovsky’s music, but I never went to see the ballet in person. In fact, I can’t ever recall liking the old tale that much. Despite my indifference, with a promising endorsement from Marissa Meyer (author of Cinder) endorsed in sugar plum purple on the cover and the promise of much more than dancing rats and swordfights, I journeyed into the world of Claire Legrand’s Winterspell. At the end of it all, I truly felt like I had weathered a great battle, but not necessarily for the reasons Legrand was intending.
Spoilers beneath the cut, and trigger warnings for rape and sexual harassment.
New York, 1899: NYC is full of politicians who won’t help the poor and doctors who prey on those who can’t help themselves. In the middle of it all is the Stole family: the manipulated mayor John and his daughters Clara and Felicity. Years ago Clara’s mother, Hope, was murdered in a brutal attack that has remained unsolved, yet while her father has been driven to drink, Clara, instead, finds refuge in her godfather’s workshop. Though not actually related by blood, Clara has learned the ways of spying, sneaking, and fighting from the strange old man Drosselmeyer, and while she enjoys these noticeably unladylike activities, Clara also hates herself for doing so. In between trying to figure out how to stop her father from getting assassinated by the other politicians in town, getting betrothed to a cruel, lecherous doctor, and discovering that her beloved godfather had something to do with her mother’s murder, Clara finds that now she’s stuck in something even more dangerous: a war with the faeries. With her father taken hostage by the faery’s queen, Anise, Clara only has a few days to retrieve him (or else her disgusting fiancée will begin preying on her sister), while also trying to reinstate the land’s past prince, Nicholas, and save the land from faery rule. If only she knew who to trust!
For all my indifference for the original story, I had a difficult time putting down Winterspell. Legrand’s writing is beautiful and enthralling—getting through half the book in one go felt like nothing. All the characters are interesting, and there were only a few I ended up disliking, but for reasons that had more to do with my attachment to Clara than that they were written poorly. The land of Cane—a “between” land that fell from the human world into some other reality—is vast and well thought-out, as are its mystical creatures. If there’s one thing Winterspell left me with, it was the sincere hope to explore this universe more.
Additionally, I’ve never before read such an interpretation of faery magic. Where many of the fae have natural magic that calls upon flowers, trees, and various other elements, the fae of Cane are, for the most part, mechanical mages. While all faeries have the ability to charm humans, their magic is tuned in the way that would make you immediately think of the industrial revolution: their magic is dirty, rough, and enterprising. Also, interestingly enough, most of the fae cannot use magic unless wearing a special channeling glove, making them seem almost more android than mystical creature. Anise, the most powerful of the fae, does not need this glove, though, and spends her time building and rebuilding Cane into whatever shape she sees fit, and is the main mind behind making such mechanical oddities like the Kambots (mechanical ravens with cameras in their eyes, giving the world the “Big Brother is watching you” vibe). Although this magic was ultimately harmful to the longevity of Cane—as is most industry when it destroys all the nature around it—it was such a unique take on the strange magic from the ballet that allowed toys and mice to fight in epic battles.
Unfortunately, no matter how much I love the worldbuilding, there are several things within Winterspell that make it so I’m unable to love the book as a whole. While Clara’s main struggle as a character was learning how to be confident in herself and not let other people dictate what she should and shouldn’t be ashamed of, a lot of her conflicts came to a head through the means of sexual harassment. At the beginning, one of the main players in the NYC underground, Dr. Victor, has taken an interest in her. She makes a note of how he’s always staring at her, undressing her with his eyes, and that he would grope her if given half the chance. As a young woman in a precarious situation in the late 1800’s, she feels as though if she speaks out against him, her family will be punished, so she endures his inappropriate behavior even as she’s betrothed to him against her will.
Furthermore, when in Cane, she and Prince Nicholas find themselves taking refuge in what I can best describe as a peep show for the fae to watch humans have sex. To preserve their cover (as “not the people the queen is hunting”), they must perform for the brothel’s owner. Even though Clara is attracted to Nicholas, the entire scene is punctuated with her inner thoughts of how she hates this and doesn’t want to be touched, ending with her running from the entire building, crying. In, fact, the entire book up to this point has made a point to tell us how much Clara just doesn’t really like being touched in a sexual way (no doubt due to her trauma with Dr. Victor). It feels like the book is trying to feed off of Clara’s trauma, rather than trying to empower her, which makes this particular section, and some others, incredibly uncomfortable to read. And I could almost deal with this if not for the fact that at some point, Clara just gets over her trauma for no reason and ends up banging Nicholas and talking about how it feels so good to be touched like this. Nothing in the book has led me to believe that Clara would enjoy this moment: she’s definitely into romance, but the book has lead me to believe that she’s a sex-repulsed asexual, or at least someone who would need more than five-ish days to get over her dislike of being touched.
Speaking of off-kilter representation, my favorite relationship in the book is actually between Anise and Clara. While both Nicholas and Drosselmeyer go into how vicious and spiteful Anise is, the reader is able to see through Clara that perhaps that’s not the entire truth. Yes, Anise is incredibly violent to the humans of Cane, is ruining the land, has cursed the prince to live part of his life as a statue, and has enslaved many of the remaining mages in Cane to make her stronger, but I can’t say that she doesn’t have a reason for her hatred. In the past, Cane was extremely racist against the fae; not knowing how to deal with their magic, the royal family of Cane dissected many faeries with pride, and believed that this was what the faeries deserved for protecting themselves against the humans. When Anise was born—a girl of both human and fae blood—they disliked her even more, so she overthrew the kingdom and took it for herself and the other faeries. Anise’s hatred for the humans, and Nicholas especially, is understandable, yet Anise adores Clara; both because Clara’s mother saved Anise from being assassinated by the king of Cane and that Clara, too, is a half-blood (mage and human). Anise dotes on Clara as much as she can (it’s hard when you’re a queen and your new friend is hated by your entire race) and devotes a huge chunk of her time to convincing Clara that she doesn’t need to be ashamed of anything about her: what she enjoys doing, of her body, and so forth. It is through Anise that Clara begins to accept herself at long last. And, with their closeness, the two of them do begin to fall in love: Anise at long last finding someone she can relate to, and Clara finding another source of hope other than Nicholas (who upon finding out she was a mage, decided to imprison her).
While the relationship between Anise and Clara was by no means perfect—there are parts to it that are undoubtedly abusive—there was hope in it. Anise was not entirely evil, but was scared of losing her power and things going back to how they used to be before her rule, and Clara seemed interested in getting Anise to the point where she could begin to rebuild Cane not as a prison, but as a home. But then all of this is forgotten when Nicholas shows back up, somehow having been able to sneak into the castle despite his shitty disguise. As they continue their escape from Anise, Drosselmeyer convinces Clara that her budding feelings of love for Anise were simply because Anise was charming her to feel that way, manipulating her—that her feelings of love for another woman were just a trick. And honestly, after this happened, I truly wish Nicholas had died. I was so excited to have bi representation in this book with the possibility of a F/F romance, and it was all taken away from me. I still feel so betrayed and hurt by this. To make matters worse, Anise doesn’t even get a shot at redemption: she ends up impaled on her own building.
This steaming pile of bullshit only reinforced my dislike for the Nicholas and Clara pairing. While Nicholas is a decent guy, their relationship is completely inappropriate. In terms of Cane’s passage of time, Nicholas would be more than eighty years old! Additionally, while he was under Anise’s curse as a statue, he lived in Drosselmeyer’s shop in the human world. He’s been watching Clara ever since she was a young girl, and now he’s sleeping with her, bringing up moments that he knew her when she was a little girl and he was still eighteen? There’s something really creepy about that.
On top of the compulsory heterosexuality of this book, it’s also almost entirely white. Every faery is white or light blue (at one point, someone’s internal monologuing even stating that it would be ridiculous to think the fae to be anything but pale) and all the important humans are white as well. The only mentions of any people of color are a prisoner and someone suffering from a drug addiction. Like, fucking really? Are we still at this point? I know it’s always enticing to write what you know (in Legrand’s case, this is most likely a white lead), but it’s inexcusable for this to be the only non-white representation in the book.
These glaring issues with Winterspell should not be ignored by any means. And while the last section of the book, especially the ending, is extremely underwhelming comparatively, Legrand’s writing is excellent and the story is a worthwhile read. I can’t, in good faith, recommend it due to the lack of non-white characters and its heinous queerbaiting, but if you decide to pick it up, I do still believe it’ll be an enjoyable read.