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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review: The Toymaker's Apprentice by Sherri L. Smith


Title: The Toymaker's Apprentice
Author: Sherri L. Smith
Publisher: Penguin
Pub. Date: October 13, 2015
Genre: Middle Grade
Rec. Age Level: 8-12
Pages: 400
More by this author: Orleans, Flygirl

A gorgeously imagined Nutcracker retelling from award-winning author making her middle-grade debut

Stefan Drosselmeyer is a reluctant apprentice to his toymaker father until the day his world is turned upside down. His father is kidnapped and Stefan is enlisted by his mysterious cousin, Christian Drosselmeyer, to find a mythical nut to save a princess who has been turned into a wooden doll. Embarking on a wild adventure through Germany, Stefan must save Boldavia’s princess and his own father from the fanatical Mouse Queen and her seven-headed Mouse Prince, both of whom have sworn to destroy the Drosselmeyer family. 

Based on the original inspiration for the Nutcracker ballet, Sherri L. Smith brings the Nutcracker Prince to life in this fascinating journey into a world of toymaking, magical curses, clockmaking guilds, talking mice and erudite squirrels.  

I'm not very familiar with the The Nutcracker, but my ignorance of the original story in no way impacted my enjoyment of Sherri L. Smith's middle grade retelling. The Toymaker's Apprentice is Smith's middle grade debut, but its likely that readers of all ages - including her older fans - will find much to appreciate within her newest offering.

"The cat raised a whiskered brow. Most rodents spoke a few words of Catish - mainly phrases such as 'spare me,' 'please,' and 'mercy.' Although that last one was a mistranslation. There was no word for mercy in the cat tongue, only 'swiftly.'"
The story is told from multiple perspectives, both human and animal. The two most frequent narrators are Stefan Drosselmeyer, the toymaker's apprentice for whom the novel is named, and Ernst, a scholarly rat. Stefan is the character with which readers will likely relate. Like the reader, he is just learning that animals - most notably mice, rats, and squirrels - can understand and communicate with humans. Ernst, on the other hand, is a learned creature, well aware of the history of between human and animal and the character from which the reader begins to understand the the events that have led up to Stefan's current predicament: a quest to track down a possibly imaginary, uncrackable nut to prevent a catastrophic war between humans and mice.
"It weighs heavily on you at first. Knowledge is often a burden. But each lesson is a tool, Stefan. The more you know about the truth behind the world, the better prepared you will be for what we face."
The action starts slowly as the scene is set and the characters are introduced, but I appreciated the slower pace as it allowed for connection with the characters. I couldn't help but draw comparisons between The Toymaker's Apprentice and Brian Jacques' Redwall series. Like Redwall, Smith's novel has plenty of action, but readers are given time to connect to the characters and realize the gravity of what a war between human and mouse would mean before launching into the fray. I found myself deeply invested in the lives of  the rat, Ernst, and his charge, the simultaneously blessed and cursed seven-headed mouse prince.
"If sadness shaped people, how was there ever joy in the world?"
Despite never having read or watched The Nutcracker, I thoroughly enjoyed this story. Smith presents readers with characters that are both hero and villain depending on the perspective, which she cleverly showcases with alternating points-of-view. 



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