Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Winterspell Book Poster Image
No sugar plum fairies in fevered, violent Nutcracker tale.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Readers see an alternative turn-of-the-20th-century New York and may be inspired to research what the real thing was like. Scenes of poverty and other social ills, contrasted with extravagant wealth and consumption, may lead to some interesting discussions.

Positive Messages

Strong messages about friendship, loyalty, courage, love of family.

Positive Role Models & Representations

As the designated adult in her family, Clara shoulders heavy responsibility, worldly and otherworldly. Confused a good deal of the time about what's real and whom she should trust, she remains determined to save her family -- whatever that takes. Some supporting characters show great bravery and loyalty.


There's plenty of violence, onstage and off. Details of a mother's death. Generations of warfare between humans and magical beings play out. Gruesome deaths at the hands of humans and monsters. A protagonist describes how he tortured and killed faeries in his earlier life. A sadistic doctor tortures orphan girls in his laboratory and threatens to do the same to Clara's little sister if Clara doesn't give in to his creepy advances. Clara dreams of clawing his face to pieces. "She imagined the viscera of his eyeballs curdling beneath her nails. He would be afraid, the fear on his face reflecting what he must so often see on her own. And Godfather would stand beside her, nodding in approval, directing her how best to slice him to pieces." 



Clara takes sexual interest in mysterious statues and seeks refuge in a "pleasure house," where she becomes an unwilling (but excited) participant in a sex show. She and Nicholas are propositioned by a prostitute. Some nudity and frequent parading around in revealing clothing. There's little explicit detail, but a great deal of overheated faux propriety, e.g. " ... her fingers brushed against the cotton breeches she hid under her gowns every morning. To feel the contours of her legs unimpeded by the usual layers of fabric made her shudder, as though she were touching some alien thing. The knobs of her knees, the curving lines of her thighs... She drew her hands away. She did not trust the tingling sensation her touch produced, and she was quite sure that the prospect of such a sensation, of such intimacy, was what made Dr. Victor watch her so hungrily." 


Occasional "damn." One "piss."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Clara's father has been a hopeless drunk since her mother was murdered. In the world of Cane, the faery queen keeps the population enslaved with addiction to a drug called "sugar"; Clara consumes it in the course of various adventures, mostly as a matter of blending in with the crowd.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Winterspell, Claire Legrand's first young-adult novel, is loosely based on The Nutcracker -- but E.T.A. Hoffman's dark original, not the Christmas classic ballet. It combines the grotesquely imaginative creepiness seen in The Cavendish School for Boys and Girls with luridly suggestive scenes involving both opposite- and same-sex couples, as well as violent sexual predators who victimize children. There's no explicit detail, but lots of overheated dwelling on what the Victorian narrator describes as shameful feelings. Characters die violently (sometimes, apparently, more than once), and the central couple spends most of the book worrying about whether they'll have to kill  or enslave each other, and how they'll feel about it.

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What's the story?

Growing up as the daughter of a gang lord who's currently the mayor of 1899 New York, 17-year-old Clara Stole finds life even harder after her beloved mother's brutal murder. Now her father's always drunk, his criminal overlords are out for blood, and a sadistic doctor who tortures hapless orphan girls in fiendish experiments pursues Clara with creepy lust and threatens her little sister. But thanks to her mysterious godfather Drosselmeyer, who's taught her skills -- from lurking in the shadows to hand-to-hand combat -- Clara's not entirely without resources. When otherworldly forces snatch her soused father away in the middle of his Christmas party, Clara soon follows and finds herself on a quest to save him, with the uncertain help of Nicholas, the exiled prince who, until recently, had been a statue in Drosselmeyer's shop. Many of the resulting challenges involve bedroom scenes, prostitution, nudity, and parading about in skimpy clothing amid steamy Victorian laments about the shame of it all.

Is it any good?

For readers who aren't fans of magic-and-violence-infused bodice-rippers, WINTERSPELL will probably collapse under the sheer weight of its ponderously overwrought prose. Here’s a sampling: "Wicked images overtook her thoughts. It was as though her new clothes, the air upon skin so unaccustomed to it, the knowledge of where Afa had been and what she might have been doing, and the close press of Nicholas against her thigh -- this entire monstrously unfamiliar experience -- was spinning her out of control. And she had to be in control, for her own sake, for her family's. She had to clamp down on her wandering thoughts, this salacious curiosity, the new pulse of her blood that seemed horribly synchronous with the pounding music upstairs." The plot seems mostly contrived to raise the specter of sexual violence and get the protagonist into bed with male and female characters, as well as into various states of undress -- all in the name of saving the world. 

For genre fans, though, this over-the-top stuff is all part of the fun, and Winterspell offers an imaginative diversion.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why stories of inter-world romance -- and the cosmic conflicts that seem to follow -- are so popular. What's the appeal? What do you think drives teen girls in particular to fall in love with mysterious guys from other worlds?

  • How difficult would you find it to go about your daily activities in Victorian clothing? What would be the most annoying problem? Do you see any upsides?

  • There seems to be quite a gap between the lives of rich and poor people in 19th century New York, as well as in the land of Cane. How do you think this compares with today's reality?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love thrills, chills, and romantic fantasy

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