Review: Hiddensee by Gregory Maguire

Review: Hiddensee by Gregory MaguireHiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker by Gregory Maguire
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy, historical fiction, mythology
Pages: 304
Published by William Morrow on October 31st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

From the author of the beloved #1 New York Times bestseller Wicked, the magical story of a toymaker, a nutcracker, and a legend remade . . .

Gregory Maguire returns with an inventive novel inspired by a timeless holiday legend, intertwining the story of the famous Nutcracker with the life of the mysterious toy maker named Drosselmeier who carves him.

Hiddensee: An island of white sandy beaches, salt marshes, steep cliffs, and pine forests north of Berlin in the Baltic Sea, an island that is an enchanting bohemian retreat and home to a large artists' colony—a wellspring of inspiration for the Romantic imagination . . .

Having brought his legions of devoted readers to Oz in Wicked and to Wonderland in After Alice, Maguire now takes us to the realms of the Brothers Grimm and E. T. A. Hoffmann—the enchanted Black Forest of Bavaria and the salons of Munich. Hiddensee imagines the backstory of the Nutcracker, revealing how this entrancing creature came to be carved and how he guided an ailing girl named Klara through a dreamy paradise on a Christmas Eve. At the heart of Hoffmann's mysterious tale hovers Godfather Drosselmeier—the ominous, canny, one-eyed toy maker made immortal by Petipa and Tchaikovsky's fairy tale ballet—who presents the once and future Nutcracker to Klara, his goddaughter.

But Hiddensee is not just a retelling of a classic story. Maguire discovers in the flowering of German Romanticism ties to Hellenic mystery-cults—a fascination with death and the afterlife—and ponders a profound question: How can a person who is abused by life, shortchanged and challenged, nevertheless access secrets that benefit the disadvantaged and powerless? Ultimately, Hiddensee offers a message of hope. If the compromised Godfather Drosselmeier can bring an enchanted Nutcracker to a young girl in distress on a dark winter evening, perhaps everyone, however lonely or marginalized, has something precious to share.

My Review:

Hiddensee is about the creation of a myth. Or perhaps it’s a myth itself, and just includes the creation of an entirely different myth.

And it’s a story wrapped around a fairy tale. It begins with the Brothers’ Grimm, off in the distance, collecting folktales for future sanitization into fairy tales. It ends with a fairy tale, the story of the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, just in time for this Christmas season.

But mostly Hiddensee is the story of a boy, who begins as a foundling in the midst of a folktale, and who drifts through his long life to become the toymaker who makes the Nutcracker, and gives it to his goddaughter.

Dirk, who is initially just Dirk and not even Dirk Drosselmeyer, spends his early years in a remote woodcutter’s cabin in the Bavarian forest, raised by an “old man” and an “old woman” who he knows are not his parents.

It’s a simple life that comes to an abrupt end, when it is time for the old man to teach the boy the job of woodcutting. Or so it seems. It is possible that either the boy killed the old man by accident, or the old man killed the boy on purpose. But either way, someone was supposed to end up dead.

Instead, young Dirk begins his travels with an adventure. On his way to the nearest village he finds himself caught up in the story of the “Little Lost Forest”, forced to choose between order and chaos, between life as a hermit or life among people, and between the mythological figures of Pan and the Pythia. It’s a decision that colors his entire life – even if he spends most of it never really making a choice of his own.

Until the Christmas night, late in his long and often passive life, when he gives his dying goddaughter the gift of the original Nutcracker. The old toy contains a piece of Pan’s knife – a tiny bit of magic and the start of his own adventures, so long ago.

In the magic of Christmas, or perhaps the magic of the Nutcracker, or even a little bit of both, young Clara witnesses the great battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King – and her life is saved.

Escape Rating C+: I have a ton of mixed feelings about this story. The Nutcracker, of course, is a holiday classic. But I have to confess that I am not as familiar with the story as I might be.

And I’ll also confess that I have never read Wicked, which may not have been the author’s first book, but which is certainly the book that made his reputation for taking stories that everyone knows and giving readers a look behind the curtain to see what happened before the story. Or after it. Or while the more familiar story is going on elsewhere.

Hiddensee certainly fits in that tradition. And readers who either love the story of The Nutcracker, or who are fans of this author’s work, will probably eat this one up with a spoon.

As a story on its own, Hiddensee didn’t quite gel for this reader. Dirk may be the protagonist of the book, but he is a character who has little to no agency in his own life. He doesn’t act. He doesn’t move the action forward. He drifts, and things happen to him and around him. He reacts, and sometimes he doesn’t react very much. Certainly never very forcefully.

But, as little as Dirk takes any control of his own story, the story of what happened to him definitely pulled me along. Each individual chapter felt like a tiny story of its own, and I felt compelled to read from one to the next in spite of the passivity of the hero of the story.

However, I got to the end and wondered if there shouldn’t have been more. The Nutcracker tale itself, while it is the crescendo to the entire tale, also felt a bit tacked on. It’s not Dirk’s story at this point, it’s Clara’s. And there is a certain sense that it was all a dream. Or that it all happened in a dream.

It’s not quite real, which seems true for much of Dirk’s life.

There were so many fascinating ideas that were briefly touched on within the confines of this story. I’d love to have seen more about the Little Lost Forest and the Pan and the Pythia. It felt like there was a terrific myth in there that always hovered just out of reach. Just as it was for Dirk during his life.

Perhaps that was the point. Hiddensee is a haunting tale, but I just expected more.

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Review: After Alice by Gregory Maguire

Review: After Alice by Gregory MaguireAfter Alice by Gregory Maguire
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy, literary fiction
Pages: 288
Published by William Morrow on October 27th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

From the multi-million-copy bestselling author of Wicked comes a magical new twist on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Lewis's Carroll's beloved classic
When Alice toppled down the rabbit-hole 150 years ago, she found a Wonderland as rife with inconsistent rules and abrasive egos as the world she left behind. But what of that world? How did 1860s Oxford react to Alice's disappearance?
In this brilliant new work of fiction, Gregory Maguire turns his dazzling imagination to the question of underworlds, undergrounds, underpinnings — and understandings old and new, offering an inventive spin on Carroll's enduring tale. Ada, a friend of Alice's mentioned briefly in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, is off to visit her friend, but arrives a moment too late — and tumbles down the rabbit hole herself.
Ada brings to Wonderland her own imperfect apprehension of cause and effect as she embarks on an odyssey to find Alice and see her safely home from this surreal world below the world. If Euridyce can ever be returned to the arms of Orpheus, or Lazarus can be raised from the tomb, perhaps Alice can be returned to life. Either way, everything that happens next is After Alice.

My Review:

alice in wonderland by lewis carrollAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (much better known as Lewis Carroll), was published in 1865. One hundred and fifty years ago. It is not surprising that one or more authors would tackle Alice in her anniversary year. Gregory Maguire, has made a career of tackling modern fairy tales as he does The Wizard of Oz in Wicked, is a natural choice to take a run at Alice.

And the run he takes is slightly sideways. Not that the whole of the original Alice isn’t completely sideways all by itself. Alice is, after all, one of the first and best examples of the literary nonsense genre. No one has done it better.

Instead of chasing after Alice head on, the author has introduced some new characters to literally chase after Alice into Wonderland – and back out again. Mostly.

In After Alice, instead of the real sisters of Alice Liddell, the author has provided a number of girls and women who are semi-concerned about Alice and her whereabouts while she is off in Wonderland.

While her sister Lydia has lost track of Alice and doesn’t care if the perpetually wandering child is temporarily mislaid – because she always comes back, others are not so calm about Alice’s disappearance.

Her best, and probably only, friend Ada arrives at the riverbank just in time to stumble down Alice’s rabbit hole after her friend. By this story’s end, it seems like half the countryside, or at least its female representatives, is chasing after one or both of the girls.

But Ada is in Wonderland, trying to find her best friend. And having her very own adventure of a lifetime.

Escape Rating B: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a book that we all remember reading, or seeing a movie. So we all feel familiar with the story, even if it has been a while. Even quite a while. And for those who want to re-acquaint themselves with one of Oxford’s most famous little girls, there is a 150th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of The Annotated Alice. Alice’s Oxford is not quite ours, or even the Oxford that Tolkien and Lewis were familiar with. A guidebook to the world she (and Lewis Carroll) knew is lovely.

The attempt in After Alice is to somewhat imitate Carroll’s style while also commenting on both it and the story. After Alice, while it is literally chasing after Alice, also occasionally “breaks the fourth wall” and talks directly to 21st century readers, as though we are time travellers looking back at Alice in 1865 while knowing all of the other famous and fictional characters who knew and loved Oxford in the interim between then and now.

The story, while its main character is following Alice, is on a different adventure. In her real world Ada suffers from curvature of the spine, and wears a metal brace that sounds like an iron maiden without the spikes. In Wonderland, she can walk and even run unaided, while her abandoned brace leads a life of its somewhat diabolical own. The way that the brace restricts her and makes her an object of pity, fear and social ostracism takes real life when she no longer wears it.

Ada’s adventure is different from Alice’s. Ada is more self-aware than Alice, and she goes through her adventure with a mission – to rescue Alice before the girl gets into too much trouble. So there is less outright silliness in Ada’s journey, and that seems right.

The silliness in Ada’s journey comes into play with the people chasing her. Not just Alice’s sister Lydia, but also Ada’s governess. The interactions between the two women and their fears of bearing responsibility for the young girls’ disappearances takes some surprising peeks, and pokes, into the position of women in the Victorian Age.

after alice by gregory maguire UK coverLike Alice’s own journey, Ada’s contains a surprising amount of commentary into her time and place, disguised in the nonsensical, but not actually nonsense, journey through Wonderland.

Reviewer’s Note: The UK cover of After Alice is much, much cooler than the U.S. cover.

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