Book Review: Sweetly by Jackson Pearce

 “I should be mad. I should hate her. I should judge her. But there is some madness in love.”

 I have had this book for a while now, and silly me, have never gotten around to reading it. So I read it while I was home past May.

Synopsis:

As a child, Gretchen’s twin sister was taken by a witch in the woods. Ever since, Gretchen and her brother, Ansel, have felt the long branches of the witch’s forest threatening to make them disappear, too.

Years later, when their stepmother casts Gretchen and Ansel out, they find themselves in sleepy Live Oak, South Carolina. They’re invited to stay with Sophia Kelly, a beautiful candy maker who molds sugary magic: coveted treats that create confidence, bravery, and passion.

Life seems idyllic and Gretchen and Ansel gradually forget their haunted past — until Gretchen meets handsome local outcast Samuel. He tells her the witch isn’t gone — it’s lurking in the forest, preying on girls every year after Live Oak’s infamous chocolate festival, and looking to make Gretchen its next victim. Gretchen is determined to stop running and start fighting back. Yet the further she investigates the mystery of what the witch is and how it chooses its victims, the more she wonders who the real monster is.

Gretchen is certain of only one thing: a monster is coming, and it will never go away hungry.

This is the second book in Jackson Pearce’s Fairytale Retellings series that started with Sisters Red. The books are only loosely related, and so calling them a series may be wrong – more like they are all books set in the same universe. The first book introduced us to the Fenris – werewolves – who like to eat, mostly women, though they’ll kill mean for the sport of it, and the Woodsmen who fend them off. There is an obvious Red Riding Hood parallel here, with the twists that make it a good retelling – i.e. Red Riding Hood is as much a hunter and hunted.

This book is, as you can probably tell from the synopsis, a retelling of Hansel & Gretel. So into the black forest we go …

First off: the overlap. There is overlap with the first book which surprised me. I suppose it shouldn’t have, since, again, these books are set in the same universe, but it did nonetheless. At first I was like “Oh come on! Really!?” but as the book continued onwards and the story developed, I found myself liking it more and more. It’s not a hugely complex story to start with – if you know Hansel & Gretel. The two siblings are kicked out of their home by a stepmother, but instead of the dark forests of Germany, the kids navigate the cross country of America, traveling from west to east, until they happen upon a dying little town and a little cottage in the woods. And that’s where the fun begins.

I will focus on Gretchen for this review – she goes through the bulk of character development and we’re in her head for the duration.

Gretchen is a broken creature – she and Ansel both lost her twin sister when they were playing in the forest around their house as children, and ever since then, they’ve felt the burden of her absence, something so pronounced that they can only resort to calling the lost sister “she” – completely eradicating her name from their speech. Though Ansel becomes a sort of guardian to Gretchen for the most part, it’s Gretchen that takes on the responsibility of her twin’s absence. She feels it more distinctly – talking about how she’s changed over the years in order to compensate – taking on parts of her sister’s personality and habits in order to maintain that balance that comes with twins. She’s a book nerd and introverted and her only defense to the monsters at night, is to dye her hair bright colours in order to be noticed – so she won’t disappear into the darkness.

From the moment that we open up into the present, while Gretchen is riding around with Ansel with no real purpose but to get far away from everything they knew, until the moment where we end off the story, Gretchen undergoes a transformation that I think is worthwhile reading. She goes from a doll her brother protects to a woman with enough self assurance that she can now take care of herelf –  enough confidence to call her own shots and take those dangerous first steps into adulthood. It’s a quick transformation in some ways and at times not very subtle – like when she asks Samuel to teach her how to kill the beasties that live in the woods by showing her how to use his firearms, and when she stands up for herself – against Ansel – because she sees things he doesn’t. But a lot of it is very subtle too. There’s a shift in the way she talks about what she observes – a frankness that flits in and out throughout the middle of the book until it reaches some sort of solid ground. It’s a coming of age story set to a world of magic and blood. It’s a pretty good piece.

The other remarkable thing about this story I want to talk about briefly is Gretchen’s relationship with Sophia – an older girl who becomes a little bit of a replacement-sister for Gretchen. For a good decade and a bit, Gretchen has carried the weight of her sister’s disappearance on her own shoulders, making herself miserable because of it. So when we come upon the nice looking young lady in the middle of the woods with her cottage and chocolate-making, and we think back to the story of Hansel & Gretel, we’re not sure what to think of Sophia Kelly. Is she a safe harbour? Is she a witch in disguise? We’re not sure, and as Ansel and Gretchen continue to live with her, we’re even less sure. The friendship that is struck between Gretchen and Sophia, however, is very sisterly – they giggle together, exchange stories, and both of them open up to one another in ways that they never have with anybody else. It causes great tension between Gretchen’s perception of the world and Sam’s, that remains very edgy throughout the book.

All in all – a good retelling.

And can I say how much I love these covers?? Here’s the one for Sisters Red. Unfortunately, however, it looks like the rest of the series is going to have different covers. Oh well.

What are you reading?

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