The Kingdom of Sweets is the latest novel from author Erika Johansen, and her first not set in the Tearling world that readers may have come across before. I remember reading and largely enjoying Johansen’s The Queen of the Tearling trilogy many years ago, so went in to The Kingdom of Sweets expecting to like Johansen’s writing style but with few other expectations. One might think this a strange thing to say, given that The Kingdom of Sweets is a dark retelling of the classic story of The Nutcracker. However, as much as I like fairy tale retellings and indeed the fairy tales in their original form, I have apparently gone my whole life having never actually read or watched The Nutcracker in any way. So, in short, I liked The Kingdom of Sweets, it was a dark fairy tale, with a suitably seasonal setting – but if you are curious about the similarities and differences between this and The Nutcracker from which Johansen takes inspiration, I am afraid I cannot tell you.
The Kingdom of Sweets is the story of two sisters, Clara and Natasha. Born on Christmas Day, the twins were “blessed” by their godfather, Drosselmeyer, to be light and dark. The light twin, Clara, is beautiful and charming, and as the twins grow up she is a society darling and shines in every room she enters. Natasha, the dark one, fades into the back ground. She is plain, clever, and always overlooked in favour of her darling sister. For years Natasha accepted this as her unfortunate lot, the twisted curse of Drosselmeyer, until one fateful Christmas Eve when the sister she saw as her only friend betrays her. The overlooked and ignored Natasha sneaks her way in to a deceptively beautiful world using the magic intended only for Clara. Here, in the titular Kingdom of Sweets, Natasha makes a bargain with a power far stronger than Drosselmeyer.
There was a lot of things I really liked about The Kingdom of Sweets. Johansen’s tale is a dark and twisted wintery story with a little sprinkle of horror and it reads very easily. It has most of the key features of a fairy tale and provided some much needed escapism. The premise of a light twin vs a dark twin, is one which has been used many times before, but Johansen’s take on this trope is imaginative and well written. The protagonist of The Kingdom of Sweets is the “dark” twin, Natasha, who I really sympathised with almost from the outset of the story, even though she probably is not meant to be liked very much by the reader. Clara’s betrayal of Natasha, and Natasha’s subsequent bloody revenge felt almost justified given how abysmally Natasha seems to have been treated. It sounds strange to say, but I enjoyed Johansen’s portrayal of Natasha’s consuming rage and her finally standing up for herself. I was swept up in this tale, and enjoying the read, for most of the novel.
Unfortunately, the ending of The Kingdom of Sweets just did not quite work for me. Which is such as shame because the story lost me only in the last few chapters. The final section of the book takes place after the curtain falls so to speak (Johansen has divided the novel in to sections: overture, acts I-V, and finally the curtain) and in hindsight if I had stopped at ‘the curtain’ and not read beyond I would have enjoyed the story more. I believe this to be a very personal thing and it is something that may well be enjoyed by other readers, but the inclusion of real world events in this part of the book just threw me off-balance and pulled me out of the fantasy realm which I had been enjoying. In comparison to the whole novel this is a relatively small issue, but it did mean that The Kingdom of Sweets ended a little flat for me.
Thank you to Erika Johansen and the team over at Transworld for sending me a copy of The Kingdom of Sweets to be able to provide this review.