Maguire is one of the first and finest modern fantasists to translate fairy tale characters into realistic historical settings, and his latest novel investigates the backstory of Herr Drosselmeier, the genius toymaker central to E.T.A. Hoffman’s beloved tale, The Nutcracker. In Maguire’s imagining, Drosselmeier is a foundling who escaped a violent childhood worthy of one of the Märchen collected by the Brothers Grimm, but his youth develops along the lines of a Goethe bildungsroman, with philosophic and erotic awakenings intertwined.
The setting is Bavaria during the prosperous years of the early-mid 19th century, but Drosselmeier’s near-death encounters with ancient deities resembling Athena and Pan make him wary of the bourgeois comforts of modern progress. He takes refuge in making toys that evoke the primal forces that animate the Black Forest from whence he came. His journey to the celebrated living room where Klara encounters the noble Nutcracker Prince is fiercely unsentimental, marred by loss and pain, but deeply passionate about art and spirituality. The nutcracker begins its existence as a gift Drosselmeier carves for a hopeless love, but is transformed into a symbol of resilience in the face of grief and doubt.
“The old gods steal secretly into our own times,” he observes, and Maguire masterfully weaves Greek myth, German Romanticism, and Jungian mysticism into a novel that both celebrates and satirizes the cult of the child, providing an unforgettable window into its rich delights and tantalizing terrors.