Full disclosure: I consider the author a friend of mine, though we've never yet managed to meet in person. (Darn it.) I read this book out of affection, but am raving about it, because I found it to be flat out astounding.
Summary: Stefan's whole world cracked, at the death of his mother. He's been his toymaker father's apprentice, but now, bereaved, his father has vanished into mindless woodworking, not even seeing his son anymore. Old enough now to try for his journeyman status, Stefan is determined that his path in life lies elsewhere. He's just leaving when his cousin Christian, the royal Boldavian clockmaker, and his mysterious partner - jailer? - Samir, show up and decide that if he's already leaving, he can come along with them on their quest for a mythical nut that's supposed to save a princess. Their quest sounds like a ridiculous children's story -- somehow, everything with Cousin Christian does -- but soon Stefan is swept up in a crazy world of amazing people, mechanical steeds, rodent royalty and secret places between the walls and bridging the known universe with the wholly unknown. And then, suddenly, everything is up to Stefan -- the world is broken, and his father is gone, and the city of Nuremberg - and maybe all of humanity - is running out of time...
Peaks: The sheer scope of this creative madness in this book is just amazing, but Smith does not invent it entirely alone. She takes for her source material the 1816 E.T.A. Hoffmann original story, "Nutcracker and Mouse King," and spins her fancies from there. The well-known Christmas ballet owes its tame, family-friendly sweetness to Alexandre Dumas and a Russian corps de ballet who interpreted Tchaikovsky's score and the story in their own way, but I like Hoffman's dark, spooky, straight up weird, which is reflected in Smith's version -- and it is quite dark, and very weird indeed. Yet, Stefan is a character whom we immediately love - while I'm less sure about Cousin Christian - and though we're not sure what we should want to succeed -- should they cure that nasty princess? Should the mouse prince, Arthur, win? -- we're gathered up and swept along into adventure, and we're brilliantly entertained. There is just so much to wonder at -- and so little I want to give away as spoilers -- but the clockmaker guilds are awesome! I'm reminded of THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET, by Brian Selznick -- that level of towering inventiveness. Stefan is kind of spirited away into a cross-country trip (Hmm, "Spirited Away" is also a great comparison story to this, as is "The Wizard of Oz") -- from Germany to Mongolia to Boldavia and back, he's whiplashed through worlds and returns, totally changed. As the novel ends, his world is beginning to knit itself back together.
Valleys: This is not a valley, honestly, but a fact: I was entranced by the language and the smoothness of the narrative - and find it unequivocally positive that this novel does not talk down to its audience. This is a novel for the middle grader who would assay Harry Potter and not be intimidated by Britishisms. This is a novel for a lover of language, and a fearless adventurer, who stopped by the Phantom Tollbooth, visited with the madams Whatsit and Whosit, who followed the yellow brick road, and never looked back. This being said, the length and language may be a little challenging for some younger middle graders - Drosselmeyer is already just a mouthful of a name - but then, this book also lends itself handily to being read aloud. At 400 pages, Stefan and friends will keep a kid occupied for the entire Winter break, and even in its very brand-newness, there is a whiff of "classic" about it.
Reader advisory: This being a fairytale, there are some dark themes, and some folk die - so be aware that this is one of stories a la Grimm, where the good guys sometimes have painful setbacks, and the wicked are punished. The emotional arc of the story is fulfilled, however; Stefan's loss at the beginning of the novel isn't "solved" - that would be awful - but he is seen naturally beginning to feel like living again.
Conclusion: The language is rich, the story is strange, the journey is long -- dive in! You'll be glad you did, and you'll never look at sweet, tame little Nutcracker ballet the same way again.
One of the weird things about being a writer of color is the Requirements. They're in five point font, but all caps, breathing down your neck, telling you that it's not enough that you're you, and that you have stories: your stories must REPRESENT. It's a voice I've actually heard out loud, in the corridor outside of an MFA class. And, at the end of the day, it's a voice writers must learn to ignore. Not everything which comes from your keyboard must be about earnestly revising history or promoting the truth. Sometimes, you've just got to give in and write a story with a seven-headed rat... which is why I've chosen my friend Sherri's story as my pick for this year's A MORE DIVERSE UNIVERSE. Cheers, everyone, and all hail the #Diversiverse. I hope you pick this one up.
Don't forget - you can read more about the book, including interviews with the author, etc., - on THE TOYMAKER'S APPRENTICE blog tour. Check it out right here.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of Putnam Books. You can find the wildly creativeTHE TOYMAKER'S APPRENTICE by Sherri L. Smith at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!