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.
Release date: November 28, 2023
Print pages: 365
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The Kingdom of Sweets: A Novel of the Nutcracker
Everyone called him Godfather. When Clara and I were christened, he came to the ceremony, though he was no relation of ours, and stood in the back of the church, leaning on his cane, grinning like a reaper as we were baptized. He wore a swirling blue cloak like that of a sorcerer in an old tale, the silken lining spangled with moon and stars, and everyone feared him. Our cook, Anastasia, who hailed from the countryside, even said he had the evil eye.
Our parents had not invited him to the christening, but because he attended, they had no choice but to invite him to the small reception at their home. They hoped he wouldn’t accept the invitation, but he did, handing my father a handsome present of gold coin before he proceeded to the corner where Clara and I lay comfortably in our cradles, staring up at the ceiling. We were the first Christmas babies that year, born shortly after midnight on the holy day, and the midwives had thought us identical. But it would never be that way again. Drosselmeyer stood over our twin cradles for a long moment, staring down at us, despite our father’s nervous attempts to lure him away with offers of cigars and brandy. When he placed one hand on each of our foreheads in the old pagan sign of blessing, our mother began to weep.
“Light,” Drosselmeyer said, looking down at Clara. And then, turning to me: “Dark.”
My mother screamed, then fainted dead away. Father and his friends tried to pull Drosselmeyer from my cradle, but he laughed and raised his cane. Darkness fell upon the room, and in the commotion afterward—people rushing to and from the kitchen seeking matches and extra lamps, Father fetching Mother’s medicine and assisting her to a sofa—it was some minutes before they realized that Drosselmeyer had disappeared, vanishing like one of his tricks. But he was not entirely gone, for in the entrance hall of our house they soon found his other gift: a portrait of the man himself, sitting in a high-backed armchair. This portrait could not be removed; Father tried, even hired carpenters to make the attempt. But the frame defeated all comers. Nor could the portrait be hidden, for no matter what Mother chose to wrap it in, cotton or sheeting or linen, the covering would inevitably fall while the house slept, and the maids would find it in the morning, crumpled on the floor. Thus did Drosselmeyer watch over us, even in the dark.
Father and Mother begged the guests to say nothing of what had occurred, but to no avail. The tale spread far and wide throughout the city, such a celebrated piece of legend that soon no one, not even my parents, recalled which friend or relative had actually stood over us at our christening and pledged to care for us if they could not. We had only one godfather, and everyone knew his name.
This became the tale of our childhood. Light, they called Clara, and rightly so, for Clara was all that was bright and charming, blue-eyed and pink-cheeked. Her bouncing curls reflected the sunlight in golden spangles. When she spoke, the lilting charm of her voice enticed others to listen, making her sound far more intelligent than she really was. She lived in the moment, not understanding why anyone should wish to look beyond, and because most people honestly did not wish to do so, Clara was both popular and well-liked. Lucky as well, they said, for the blessing of a wizard was no small thing. Drosselmeyer never attended another christening in the city, and though no one knew why he had
come to ours, our family was assumed to be under a kind of protection. So Clara was invited everywhere, to birthdays and soirees and parties and lunches. She was a wildly decorative jewel in our society, and her dance card was always full.
I was the dark child, the unlucky child. My hair fell black and straight down my back, and my face turned broad and dull. As we left childhood, dropping our necklines and tightening our stays, Clara developed a pretty figure, with full breasts and long waist, while I remained short and lump-like. I sat in the corner at dances, watching Clara move, living through her life. Being born on Christmas Day was supposed to be a lucky omen, but our friends and neighbors assigned that luck only to Clara, while I was considered fundamentally unlucky; once I overheard Mrs. Ladd, the railroad magnate’s wife, telling the baker that she would rather cross paths with a black cat than that cursed Stahlbaum child. The rest of the neighborhood must have felt the same, for I was never bullied or mistreated by the other children, only left alone.
I did not believe myself cursed, but I could not deny that Drosselmeyer had done something to me, opened my eyes wide. Clara never saw the way boys’ faces would change when she turned elsewhere, their smiles becoming hungry and wild. She never saw our father curse in his beard at the rich men who snubbed him in the street, or the brittle disappointment that lay behind our mother’s fixed smile. Clara could not see the hidden darkness of the world, but I could. I was cursed to see. Grandmother Kalenov, the oldest woman in our neighborhood, said that I had the evil eye, just like Drosselmeyer, that I could look into a man’s heart and know his most terrible secrets. I saw the hidden contempt of husband for wife and wife for husband; the fear of the merchant whose business was collapsing; a mother’s jealousy of her daughter’s youth. They did not trust me, our friends and neighbors, for they knew I knew them, and people don’t wish to be known. They need their secrets, just as they need their illusions, and so although I was christened Natasha—having been born first on Christmas Day—they called me the dark sister, and I was as distrusted as Clara was praised.
Still, we were friends, Clara and I. We squabbled often, but we were loyal. We needed each other, for our parents were never the same after the christening. Mother grew increasingly dependent on the unseen world, her days dominated by mediums and spiritualists as she sought some way to undo what Drosselmeyer had done. Father took his own regrets out of the house, and so often it was only Clara and me, supervised first by nursemaids and then, as we grew older, tutors. When we were four, our brother, Fritz,
was born, and he was christened without incident. My parents held the ceremony at home, and the priest did not begin to speak until Father had locked all the windows and doors.
After our christening, Drosselmeyer reappeared in the neighborhood wearing an eye patch. The neighbors said that he had offered his right eye to the dark powers in return for help with his sorcery. There had always been such tales, Drosselmeyer dealing with the devil to curse this or that associate who had crossed him, or to delay his own old age. Drosselmeyer had come to the city long before my parents’ marriage, and he was not young even then, but he still walked the streets with the easy movements of a man in his prime. The loss of an eye did not appear to discomfit him either, for he went steadily about his business, doing strange favors and piling up debt . . . the most dangerous kind of debt, not only of money but of service. By the time Clara and I came out into society at fourteen, most of our neighborhood seemed to owe Drosselmeyer in one way or another, and even our own father was forced to beg a loan when one of his foundries suffered a collapse.
Thus did we join the legion of families who lived under Drosselmeyer’s thumb. No one tried to cheat him, for he always seemed to know things he had no business knowing, and no one quite understood the limits of his strange power. Mrs. Armistead, one of my mother’s more foolish friends, said that Drosselmeyer had threatened to turn her nephew into a toad, but people lost interest in the story when she admitted that he had never made good on his threat. Still, no one was quite certain that Drosselmeyer could not do such a thing if he wished, and so no one dared test him. He prowled our neighborhood at all hours, so they said, practicing his dark art, and on nights when I was wakeful I would sometimes peek around the edge of my velvet curtains, hoping to see him down there on the snow-covered path, surrounded by the clutch of gilded boys he kept to do odd errands. And I did see him once, wearing only his top hat and cape in spite of the cold, striding up our street with his boys hollering and baying like a pack of wolves bewitched by the full moon. But no one called the constables, for everyone knew that even the constabulary resided comfortably in Drosselmeyer’s pocket, that he had bought their blindness to his misdeeds, so he might do as he wanted and go where he would.
Then one night I saw him alone, his gaunt figure beneath a lit lamp that swung and
creaked in the November wind. He seemed to be looking up at our windows, but I couldn’t see his eyes, shadowed as they were beneath the brim of his top hat. Still I was afraid, for it seemed to me then that he had blessed and cursed Clara and me in equal measure, and done so for no greater reason than caprice. Several more times I saw him there; I thought that he was waiting for someone, but could not imagine who it might be at three in the morning, and soon I learned not to peek around the edge of the curtains, not wanting to know. Drosselmeyer had made me ugly, cursed me with terrible knowledge, just as he had made Clara beautiful and free of thought, and when I saw him there, leaning against the lamppost without a care at the very darkest hour of the night, I felt that he had somehow come to witness the effects of his work, much as a man who sets two dogs to fighting will watch over the scrap with a benevolent smile and a fistful of cash, not particularly caring who wins.
But he never tried to enter our house, and because he never did, I assumed he never would. As an adolescent, I found myself becoming philosophical about Drosselmeyer’s curse. Clara might be beautiful, I reasoned, but I was the one who liked to read, who studied history and languages. Would I have enjoyed these things if I’d been invited to all the parties and had a new proposal every week, as Clara did? She cared nothing for learning; she had abandoned our tutor at the age of twelve with my parents’ quiet approval. What need had Clara for history, for language, for made-up worlds? She found her happiness in her waking life, and while I envied her at times, I was pleased enough to be myself. So Drosselmeyer’s curse was not necessarily the catastrophe my parents imagined. He had laid upon me a depth of strangeness, something that might allow me to be content with the muted life I would lead in Clara’s shadow. On long winter afternoons, while Clara attended dance lessons and I sat in the warmth of the bay window, reading, I mused that while no one would ever ask me to perform in the ballet, they would not expect Clara to write a novel or a treatise either. Perhaps Drosselmeyer had even acted the part of God himself all those years before, bestowing gifts upon my twin and me according to our needs. Perhaps he had meant no harm at all.
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow in the morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
—The Waste Land
T. S. Eliot
Anastasia, can I ask you a question?”
Our cook cursed, levering a tray of buns from the oven. The kitchen was her unquestioned domain, but still she always seemed slightly harried, even in her element. She put the tray on the cooling rack and turned back to me, wiping her hands.
“Ask quickly, girl.”
“You know how to mix . . . medicine.” She had told me never to call it what it was; even the floorboards had ears in our house.
“Aye, medicine,” Anastasia replied, tipping me a wink. Above our heads, the wind hooted in the rafters. A storm was on the way for Christmas, such a fearsome storm that the railroads had been shut down, the sailors on the river forced to spend Christmas Eve lashing ships to the dock.
“Do you know how to make other things?”
“Like—” I swallowed. “Like a love potion?”
She froze in the act of glazing a joint of beef, fixing me with a cold glare.
“And if I did know such a thing?”
“I don’t know. I just thought—”
“Thought what? Would you be like your mother, gazing into a crystal ball for what you can’t have? Would you seek by foul means what you cannot get by fair?”
I shook my head, feeling my cheeks burn.
“I know you’ve lost all sense about that Liebermann boy, but only the foolish meddle with love magic, child. Being adored is for pretty girls; you must be content with what you are.”
“Were you a pretty girl, Tasia?”
The moment I asked, I regretted it. Anastasia was old, with whitening hair and a spinster’s sticklike body. But she didn’t seem to take offense. She dipped the brush into the sauce and made slow, deliberate strokes with it, as though she were painting a masterpiece rather than glazing a side of beef.
“No, not pretty, Nat. Not unloved, but never adored. And I’ll tell you something else: a man like your Conrad may like a plain girl, may even come to care for one. But she’ll always be the one he settles for in place of the beautiful woman he can’t have. And when the opportunity presents, he will not hesitate.”
I shrank from her words, the hopelessness in them. Conrad didn’t love me, I knew that. But he could. He could. If I could only do the right thing, say the right thing, find the lever that made him look at other girls with such admiration, things might change.
“Are men really so terrible, Tasia?”
“Not terrible. Not even bad-hearted, most of them. But fools, girl . . . men are such fools for beauty.”
“It seems unfair.”
Anastasia snorted, hefting the tray of beef toward the oven.
“You’ll find no fairness in my kitchen. Whatever you feel for that boy will only end in grief; leave him behind.”
“I’ve tried to leave him behind. I tried so hard.”
“Try harder, then.”
Feeling myself dismissed, I left the kitchen. I shouldn’t have ventured in there at all on a day when Anastasia was preparing for a party, and I certainly should never have asked her about a love potion. She had left the country years before, traveling to the cities as so many villagers had since the death of the old king, seeking a better life and more food. Her people were superstitious; Anastasia knew the tarot cards, and would even read palms if she was in an expansive mood. But I should not have asked her about a love potion. I had never sought to entrap Conrad, as other girls did their men, with a full belly or the threat of an angry father, but deep down, I knew that I might have tried such a thing if I thought I would get away with it. I was not the sort of girl men married; Drosselmeyer had seen to that. But hope was a devilish thing. One morning Conrad had torn his cuff climbing down the drainpipe, leaving a thin scrap of white cloth, and I had clambered out onto the sill in the frozen dawn, reaching as far as I could across the gap between window and drainpipe, nearly falling from the icy ledge in my determination to grab the piece of cloth, to have this one thing that would not vanish in the light. Once in a while, I would take the scrap out to look at, to touch, but most of the time it was enough to know it was there, proof that I had not imagined all those nights when we rolled on the bed in a facsimile of love. Bishop Theofan would undoubtedly have called me a harlot, but even the threat of hell did not come into the nights when Conrad climbed through my window. He would knock, and I would let him in, always, because having the nights was better than having nothing at all, even if those nights were no more real than the fog that melted away with the dawn. Conrad did not love me, but that didn’t mean he never would. Even the storm outside seemed to feel my certainty, for it picked up suddenly, making the candles flicker, wind screaming against the windows as I left the kitchen.
In the parlor, servants were decorating the tree. We had no ballroom, as the city’s truly wealthy families did, but our parlor was certainly large enough to host a party. Our Christmas Eve parties had become something of a neighborhood tradition, but the neighbors didn’t know of the penny-pinching that went on behind the scenes to make them as lavish as possible, just as they didn’t know how much of our current lifestyle was bankrolled by Drosselmeyer. My father had ordered the tallest tree the woodcutter could find: a bright fir that stretched nearly twenty feet to the ceiling, so fresh that the house still smelled of sap, and later on Drosselmeyer would pay the woodcutter for his trouble, hiding our penury like a magician doing a parlor trick. We couldn’t afford these parties, but all the same, we would have them. To do anything else would be to admit our diminished circumstances, and Father could not bring himself to do that.
The youngest of the houseboys, teenage Joseph and Arne, were hanging the tree with tapers and holly now, laughing and throwing berries at each other. They could afford to do so; Mother was shut up in the parlor with the medium, Madame Margritta, a pungent woman, swathed in shawls, who came to our house at least four times a week. She and Mother would sit for hours in Mother’s private parlor, wailing over lost relatives, dead royals, and someone named Dominic. Mother spent a fortune on the unseen world, and sometimes Father would complain, but not too much. Father had his own diversions, and he was no more anxious than Mother to have them brought into the daylight, to account for where the money went.
I moved on into the entrance hall, where the dark of late afternoon held sway. Here, Drosselmeyer gazed down from his portrait, his eyes gleaming redly in the shadows. Those eyes followed me as I went up the curving staircase, and though I knew it was only a trick of the painter’s skill, still I looked away, quickening my steps. The old man in the portrait frightened me as much as ever, and I wasn’t alone. Father had once asked our priest, Father Benedict, to come in and break the spell that fixed the portrait to the wall, but not even the priest wanted to tangle with Drosselmeyer. The neighbors said that the old sorcerer had cursed our house, but they came to our parties all the same, just as a child would poke a stick at an effigy of the devil. Our neighbors might be in Drosselmeyer’s pocket, just as we were, but none of them had to live under his eye. The portrait was still watching me; by a trick of the light, it seemed to wink as I went up the stairs.
When I got to the top, I heard Clara humming to herself, some new tune from the latest season. Clara was invited to every ball, even those of old wealth, the landowners and nobility, for she was too charming to remain anonymous among Father’s class of merchants and entrepreneurs. Father always said that she would marry well, and his eyes would gleam at the idea of it: our Clara, moving among dukes, duchesses, earls. Father stood at war with his own heart in these matters. He hated the aristocracy, and yet his hate was born of envy. He did not care about ancestral names or heredity; what he really wanted was their ancient, unassailable wealth, and particularly the respect that came with it. Father would have given anything to seal his letters with an ancestral ring, to be invited to the
Royal Palace for shooting, to have this and that business associate bow to him as he ambled up the street.
Downstairs, Anastasia’s voice echoed from the parlor, exhorting the servants to hurry, the first guests would arrive soon. I should have been getting dressed, but still I paused in Clara’s doorway for a long moment, staring at my twin as she stood sideways before her mirror in her shift, staring critically at her own reflection. She had turned her foot out, an affectation she had learned from dance class. Mother had warned Clara that training as a ballerina would thicken her legs and reduce the size of her breasts, but as far as I could see, Clara’s body had not altered one whit. She had a beautiful figure, and I felt unexpected jealousy prick me with its claws, Anastasia’s words echoing in my head. If I looked like Clara, Conrad would surely have fallen in love with me long before.
“If you’re going to stand around in nothing but your shift,” I said, swallowing my envy as best I could, “then you should at least shut the door.”
Clara shrugged. “The servants have better things to do today. As for Arne, he’s already seen it all.”
I came inside, closing the door behind me. Gleaming eyes stared down at me, the dolls and stuffed toys and porcelain figurines that seemed to decorate every inch of shelving. My twin’s room always reminded me of a fright house, the dolls slumping about like dead children. Clara didn’t notice my distaste; she was too busy looking critically at her reflection, relaxing her shoulders and pushing her stomach out.
“It doesn’t show yet,” I remarked.
“I know it doesn’t. I just want to see what it will look like in the spring.”
I hesitated, wanting to ask her the question I had been holding back for some weeks: how had she been so careless? After the first night Conrad had climbed through my window, I had gone to Anastasia for help, imagining the worst case, always the worst case. Clara had never taken such a step, though Arne was not her first bedpartner, or even her first servant. But I did not want to accuse my sister, who had never once remonstrated with me for a single one of my mistakes. I envied Clara nearly everything she had, but the envy had never turned to hate, as it did in fairy tales. We were too close for that.
“Does Arne know?” I asked, watching Clara poke her stomach forward again. ...
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