ARC Review: The Kingdom of Sweets by Erika Johansen

Today’s review is about THE KINGDOM OF SWEETS by Erika Johansen. It’s a dark retelling of The Nutcracker, a Western Christmas-time classic. This fresh spin offers fantasy horror elements amidst a backdrop of social unrest in pre-revolutionary Russia.

Author: Erika Johansen
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Publisher: Dutton
Publish Date: November 28, 2023
Print Length: 368

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Official Synopsis

This gloriously transportive reimagining of The Nutcracker tells the tale of twin sisters, divided by envy and magic, set against each another one fateful Christmas Eve.

Light and dark–this is the cursed birthright placed upon Clara and Natasha by their godfather, Drosselmeyer, whose power and greed hold an entire city in his sway. Charming Clara, the favorite, grows into a life of beauty and ease, while Natasha is relegated to her sister’s shadow, ignored and unloved.

But Natasha seizes the opportunity for revenge one Christmas Eve, when Drosselmeyer arrives at the family gala with the Nutcracker, an enchanted gift that offers entry into an alternate world: the Kingdom of Sweets.

Following Clara into the glittering land of snow and sugar, Natasha discovers a source of power far greater than Drosselmeyer: the Sugar Plum Fairy, who offers her own wondrous gifts . . . and chilling bargains. But as Natasha uncovers the truth about a dark destiny crafted long before her birth, she must reckon with forces both earthly and magical, human and diabolical, and decide to which world she truly belongs.

My Review

I received a free, digital, advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. My review is my own and reflects my honest opinion about this book.

THE KINGDOM OF SWEETS is a dark, fantasy horror retelling of the Christmas-time classic The Nutcracker. Cursed by Drosselmeyer after their birth, Clara and Natasha are each other’s foil. Everyone loves beautiful, perfect Clara whereas discerning, cynical Natasha rarely receives a second glance. On Christmas Eve, right before they turn 18, Drosselmeyer arrives with an enchanted Nutcracker, which gives them entry to the Kingdom of Sweets. When Natasha follows Clara and the Nutcracker into this magical world, her curse of darkness shows her a new truth. One dark bargain later with the Sugar Plum Fairy and Natasha slowly begins to unravel Drosselmeyer’s true intentions.

Right away the atmospheric and intentional writing style grabbed my attention. Johansen carefully crafts each sentence with care, precisely communicating Natasha’s thoughts. However, precision does not mean dry and Natasha’s sole point of view is lightly poetic with a slightly detached observational air. I found this really lent to her portrayal of the more mature twin, with the caveat that there is no Clara POV, so true comparison is not possible. There were a few times I found myself tiring of Natasha’s POV, but I reminded myself that she is not the product of a loving environment, so she has her own demons.

Though not clear from the start, which does not detract from the story, THE KINGDOM OF SWEETS occurs in Russia right before the Russian Revolution. The context clues come forward as Natasha’s narration continues through time. This subtle use of history helps to ground the tale amidst the dark fantasy and horror elements as well as show Natasha’s compassion for those of lesser means. It also lends an air of mystery that clarifies while Natasha unravels the enigma of her curse.

While I loved the writing style, I had a more difficult time grasping the magical reasoning behind the curse. It seems a bit hazy, whether done intentionally or not. This may perhaps be to my ignorance of the history of magical motifs or the folklore of fairies. Regardless, I still felt somewhat in the shadows about the meaning of everything by the end. However, other themes are more universally understood and easier to grasp. Perhaps the most evident message is one cannot know what someone is going through without an open dialogue. Contextual perceptions only serve one so far and everyone has their own personal struggles.

Overall, THE KINGDOM OF SWEETS is a darkly fresh take on a seasonal classic. This a unique selection for those who prefer a larger helping of horror with their fantasy. Elements of the original The Nutcracker story are present, but Johansen makes it her own in this atmospheric, psychological spin.

Rating: 3.75
Content warnings: blood, death
Reading format: Kindle e-book

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