For some, October might be a little early to start uttering the ‘c’ word. But for those of us who love all things festive, sparkly and sweet, we’re already enthusiastically seeking out the Christmassy books and movies in a bid to infuse our lives with a little magic. Enter Midnight in Everwood, the adult debut from M. A. Kuzniar – author of the middle-grade series The Ship of Shadows – who’s penned the epitome of a yuletide fairytale complete with whimsical sugar palaces, frozen landscapes and a beautifully theatrical atmosphere that whisks you away from reality.
It’s Nottingham, 1906, and Marietta Stelle longs to be a ballerina. Yet she’s bound by the rules of society and the wishes of her parents, who expect her to give up her dream and enter into a respectable marriage. Unimpressed with her prospective suitors, Marietta is intrigued when a mysterious new toymaker, Dr Drosselmeier, purchases the neighbouring townhouse and charms his way into her family’s good graces. But her intrigue begins to disintegrate when Drosselmeier shows a darker side to both his intentions and his toy making magic. When he constructs an elaborate set for the grand Christmas Ball, which is to be Marietta’s final ballet performance, she unwittingly steps into a wintry land that’s as dangerous for a headstrong young woman as it is enchanting.
From the sparkling cover to the magical world that Marietta wanders into, everything about Midnight in Everwood is designed to inspire the imagination and create a sense of fairytale-like wonder. Kuzniar’s coming-of-age retelling of The Nutcracker weaves history and fantasy to explore the trials of women – even those with luxuries and privileges – in the early 20th century and the societal expectations that put marriage and status above passion and happiness. The curious world of Everwood that Marietta finds herself first transported to and then imprisoned in acts as a mirror for Marietta’s real life – the way she’s controlled by self-important men and constantly forced to dance to the beat of other people’s drums, rather than the beat of her own heart, which is a much steadier guide – if only she could learn to trust it.
When she danced, she flew on gossamer wings that lifted her away from the dragging weight of her family’s expectations. Enticed her with a glimpse of an alternate path to the one she was obligated to tread. When she danced, she had a voice. And nothing was more fearsome than a silent future.”
This is a dream book for classic ballet lovers. Within the pages you’ll find dutiful soldiers, scurrying mice, an evil king, a trapped princess and a magical kingdom alive with the spirit of Christmas. Kuzniar brings the fanciful Nutcracker landscape to life in a dazzling vision of ice walls, spicy gingerbread structures and an ever-constant stream of steaming hot chocolate topped with whipped cream. The descriptions of confectionary and patisserie are delectably over-indulgent and if you don’t care for flowery, expressive writing, you might just find it all a little too sickly sweet. But if you enjoy dreamy prose that conjures the kind of delicious sights and scents found at a traditional Christmas market, you’ll find this a difficult tale to resist.
With all the lovely descriptions of the frosty landscape, edible treats and bewitching balls, the actual dialogue between characters is slightly less inspiring. It might be era appropriate but it also feels oddly formal, lacking the natural colloquial tone that allows readers to lose themselves in characters’ interactions. The romance that Marietta unexpectedly discovers in Everwood is sufficiently swoon-worthy but it also feels slightly rushed, a device to force Marietta to finally fight for what she wants. However, those are small quibbles in what is a genuinely charming and diverting story full of darknesses and delights.
There’s a heartening thread of sisterhood that runs through Midnight in Everwood, making Marietta’s mission to break free from her oppressors even more important. As the tale progresses, she’s not just fighting for her freedom and dreams; she’s fighting for the friends she makes in Everwood, and for all the other women and girls like her too. This might be a historical fantasy book but those themes are eternally relevant.
As we move from autumn to winter and look forward to the festive season, this is a quintessential Christmas read that will happily sit alongside E. T. A. Hoffmann’s original classic and Alexandre Dumas’ ballet adapted retelling. And with such a beautiful cover (not to mention gold foil detailing and stencilled edges on certain editions), it’s almost a Christmas decoration in itself!
Midnight In Everwood is published by HQ on 28 October 2021