Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Review: Summerfall and Winterspell by Claire Legrand

Ermahgerd, you guys.  These books have made me realize how boring my life is.  Most of the novels I read fall into one of two categories:

  1. Slow, contemplative stories, with a big focus on character development and a touch of mystery, like The Meaning of Night or My Cousin Rachel
  2. Stories based on witty and clever insights more than plot, with fairly blatant social or moral commentary, like A Series of Unfortunate Events or the Discworld novels
But Winterspell was an action-packed, fast-paced, emotional roller coaster.  I often found myself thinking, "Oh my, somebody's getting punched - this is quite exciting!" like the 80-year British lady that I am, deep down.

Series rating: 4.5
Recommended for: potential fantasy fans who are afraid of getting bored by world building
Summary: Winterspell is an adaptation of the Nutcracker story, mostly taking its cues from the ballet.  Clara Stole is the daughter of the mayor of New York City at the close of the nineteenth century.  Her father seriously needs to get his act together because he has gotten in way over his head with the city's crime syndicate that probably brutally murdered his wife.  Fortunately, Clara is learning how to kick ass from her godfather.  Then, on Christmas eve, basically everything bad thing that could happen happens, and Clara ends up in a far away land that makes NYC and its mob look like the county fair.  Now our heroine must fight to save her father, and apparently help restore the prince to the throne (who as it turns out, is an actual alive and sometimes naked person, and not a dreamy statue), although that's really not why she came here, guys.
Summerfall tells the story of the parents of Winterspell's villain, and provides some necessary background on the land of Cane.  Get ready for a lot of forbidden love and a lot of racism.

So, first things second, at this point: what order should you read these books in?  Normally, I read prequels after the original, but Summerfall was published several weeks before Winterspell, and I took this as a hint from Ms. Legrand that it should be read first, and I'm glad I took the hint.  Winterspell is the story of a kingdom that has gone to hell, so you'll appreciate the degradation and misery so much more if you have something to compare it to.  Alternately, you could read the Part One of Winterspell, which is set entire in New York and not in our fantasy world, then go read Summerfall and learn about Cane, then return to Winterspell.  But you have to promise me that you'll be able to stop reading at the end of Part One - it will be difficult to resist. The  world of Summerfall is basically straight-up fantasy, with your magic and your elves, but Winterspell is more of a hybrid of fantasy and stempunk; you've still got the magic, but there's also video cameras, railways, and drugs.  Just imagine a fantasical early Renaissance setting where Leonardo da Vinci turned evil and took over the world.  Awesome sauce, right?

But the awesome does not stop there.  Claire Legrand gets some many point from me because this series has an LGBT element.  As a bisexual lady, one of my favorite things is when an artist can craft a protagonist who has meaningful and plot-related romantic relationships with people of different genders (see also: Thirteen in House M.D. and Damisa in Ancestors of Avalon - although the rest of that book was crap, so maybe not worth it.)  This type of exploration was perfect for Winterspell because it is about sexual awakening and be assertive with your sexual sovereignty (to go all English professor-y for a moment), and limiting that it heterosexuality can cripple the impact.

I'm sure some of you are interested in this series because you love the ballet and you're wondering: how does this compare? I used to be a dancer, and have performed the role of Clara (or "Marie" in our production), so I consider myself qualified to answer this question.  As you may know, the last two thirds of the ballet are basically plot-free, so Claire Legrand had the opportunity to go crazy.  The main constant between the two interpretations is the character of Drosselmeyer - he was spot on for me: eye-patch, interested in mechanics, loving to his god-daughter, and also not at all pedophile-y, as it can be played (we've got a whole other character to be the creepy sex-offender).  The rest of the story was either original or heavily adapted.  Our big bad is not the Mouse King, also some R.O.U.S's do show up at midnight on Christmas eve.  Cane isn't populated by candy, but everyone is addicted to sugar.  And the one that makes me the tiniest bit sad: Nicholas is in no way a nutcracker.  He was a statue for quite a while, couldn't he have falled over at some point and cracked open a walnut someone had left on the floor?  Could he like to eat nuts?  I'd take anything, really.

But that's not enough to drop my rating, so por que no 5 stars?  None of these issues would prevent me from recommending this series, but I do wish to document my grievances for future writers.
  1. I got the impression that Summerfall was meant to be a full novel.  Scenes would be flowing along smoothly, and then all of a sudden I'd run into "Three months later..." and I couldn't help but think "really, did nothing interesting happen to our characters in those three months?"
  2. Winterspell suffers slightly from what I call the "born to die" problem.  We get introduced to some characters fairly late in the book, and quickly get some character building thrown at us so that we feel sad when they die.  I always say, either have the balls to kill off some main characters or trust the reader to have the compassion to feel sad when some random bloke dies, if you really do need to show some death.
  3. As Winterspell progressed I noticed some things about our male romantic interest, Nicholas.  He spent about 15% of his screen time, as it were, doing interesting, plot-advancing things, another 15% doing or threatening really horrible things to our protagonist, and the other 70% apologizing profusely to her and saying that he knows she has no reason to trust him, but he would never hurt her again even if it kills him.  So, get ready for a several pages of that toward the end.

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