The Toymaker's Apprentice, by Sherri L. Smith

If you are not the sort of person who reads about 300 middle grade fantasy novels per year (which I do, give or take), you might think that mg fantasy is much of a muchness; you might not have much of a sense of how much Room there is in this little subgenre for surprises.  I am surprised by how often I still think "I haven't read this before."

The Toymaker's Apprentice, by Sherri L. Smith (Putnam, Oct. 2015) is a story I had never thought of, though I thought it would be one I knew--a reimagining of the Nutcracker.  Though the mysterious Drosselmeyer is here, and the Nutcracker given to the little girl, and the battle with the rats, the most traditional Nutcracker part of the story comes very close to the end, and there are no sugarplum fairies (no big loss!). 

Instead, the core of the story is the age old conflict between rodent-kind and human-kind, and how a tilt in the balance of population/power threatened the city of Nuremburg and even the whole rule of mankind.  And the heart of the story is a boy named Stefan Drosselmeyer, toymaker by training, who's lost his mother and who longs to see the world, and make wonders of clockwork ingenuity. The other heart of the story is a boy named Arthur, who is a mouse prince.  A mouse prince who is part of a monstrosity, whose life is constrained horribly both by the magic of his deranged mouse queen mother and by his monstrous life as one of seven heads on one mouse body.  Stefan and Arthur are like dark twins of each other, and much of the book is the story of Stefan's journey to Arthur's home island, where his mother is plotting mouse domination over humanity, alternating with sections from the point of view of the rodent protagonists/antagonists.

Smith's writing is powerful, taut, and vivid.  The story is thought-provoking and fascinating, with clockwork magic and human/animal magic in abundance.  I was gripped.  It is a good book.

Yet I am not quite quite sure just who I would recommend this to.  Obviously, anyone who screams when they see a mouse would not find some of the invading mouse horde scenes comfy reading (characters think there is water flowing down streets, but it is really mice.  That sort of mouse horde thing).   Anyone who loves the fairy sugarplum sparkle of the Nutcracker ballet and thinks that's what they'll get here will feel cheated.   Anyone who reads middle grade fantasy to revel in the power a young kid might have to change the world with sword or sorcery might find Stefan's lack of such traditional fantastical heroism (though he has plenty of determination and considerable mechanical ingenuity, and does some fine sword fighting toward the end) disappointing. 

So I think I would recommend this one to those who don't have a whole lot of expectations about what middle grade fantasy should be, but who are prepared to suspend disbelief and go along with a beautifully written mouse vs human fantasia of not inconsiderable length and sophistication.  Mouse vs. human has been done before, but never quite like this.

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher for Cybils Award consideration.


  1. The Nutcracker and Sherri L. Smith are both great, so I'm not surprised this is too.

  2. Audience was my sticking point on this. I finally decided that ballerinas who liked Redwall would enjoy this! Middle grade readers who will read ANY fantasy book would be the other group.


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