Review: “Sweetly” by Jackson Pearce

For the love of books

It is already a fact that fairy tales are the most popular choice of published work for writers to retell and re-create in their own short stories and novels.  For example, Vivian Vande Velde has re-written many fairy tales, especially those that are illogical and whose plots lack common sense.  One of these is Hansel and Gretel, which Velde analyzed in her short story, Twins.  This narrative originally introduced by the Brothers Grimm leans toward being horrific, and Twins only deepens this deep strain of terror and domination.  This time the stepmother is an unfortunate victim of a weak husband and two strangely sadistic stepchildren.  From any perspective, it is difficult and perhaps impossible to see the good side of Hansel and Gretel as a story, with its themes of abuse, neglect, and abandonment forerunning two children’s escape from bad parents and a murderous cannibal living in a house made out of candy.  Terrifying and dark, Twins is a cross between The Turn of the Screw and a famous fairy tale, a creative and defiant horror story.

On the other hand, Sweetly by Jackson Pearce matures Hansel and Gretel into a proper “fairy tale” for young adults, complete with monsters, candy, and two bright siblings as its protagonists.  Pearce first wrote Sisters Red as a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, but now Sweetly proudly takes its place on the bookshelf as a new horror version of a story that centers on two children who experienced a very harsh childhood.  For those familiar with Sisters Red, the existence of the Fenris, the ultimate werewolves with an appetite for human flesh, are the author’s incarnation of soulless evil masked by deceptively attractive and human-like exteriors.  As a companion novel, Sweetly carries on the legacy of werewolf-hunting by placing its characters right in the same universe where evil radiates more strongly from actual monsters than human beings.

However, while in Sisters Red the main characters mostly dealt with the Fenris in gory fights, Sweetly has something new in store: a witch.  Not the typical personification of a real witch, Sophia Kelly is still not all she appears to be—beautiful, charming, and a talented candymaker.  “The patron saint of candy,” Sophia seems to be an angelic savior to both Gretchen and Ansel when they find her in the middle of the woods near a run-down South Carolina town.  Although both brother and sister find themselves inexplicably drawn to their hostess, Gretchen discovers that Sophia is hiding many secrets behind the façade of her magical candy shop.  And after the mysterious disappearance of her own twin sister during a monster chase, Gretchen is determined to never be afraid again and to never vanish—an ultimatum that means a fight with what is really lurking in the woods of Live Oak.

Ansel, Gretchen’s brother, is not the hero of the story because he is the older brother; in fact, he is even more vulnerable than Gretchen and needs to be saved from danger.  Live Oak is full of mysteries and murder, and Sophia happens in be in the middle of tragic circumstances.  Gretchen is frightened of survival but she is much stronger than her brother; what she has to decide is if Sophia’s involvement in numerous girls vanishing is merely coincidental or premeditated—a hurtful ordeal that means realizing the extent of Sophia’s lies.  The author’s references to Hansel and Gretel itself are very subtle but clever, like the slight name changes for the main characters and her more logical deviation from the original tale’s scenarios.  It is true that the wicked stepmother is not a prominent character at all, although Pearce’s fascination with twins is even more evident in Sweetly than it was in Sisters Red.  Like in Sisters Red, the lives of the main characters in Sweetly are deeply intertwined, e.g. the brother of Silas Reynolds from Sisters Red.

Pearce even hints at her upcoming companion novel to SweetlyFathomless, by mentioning mermaids, the “kindred evils” related to the Fenris.  Moreover, the author pays slightly less attention to philosophy this time by shifting the spotlight to a very interesting description of sharpshooting techniques when Gretchen learns how to shoot a gun from Samuel.  Unlike in Sisters Red, Sweetly has more natural romance that blooms alongside Gretchen’s self-discovery.  The same can be said for the graphic violence of the Fenris, which occurs mostly in the final chapters of Sweetly instead of in every chapter.  The Fenris themselves are as realistic and disgusting as ever, but they stay in the shadows while the author builds the atmosphere of Sophia’s life and her irrational love for a lost sister.

To summarize the heart of Sweetly, Sophia’s love for her family mirrors that of Gretchen’s love for Ansel and Samuel, going even beyond what Sophia feels for Gretchen and Ansel.  Sophia’s mentality lingers on the brink of madness when she would sacrifice anything or anyone to save her sister, questioning whether any being can be so hopelessly evil that they feel the right emotions but act immorally regardless.  Sophia only earns her label as a witch because of the extent of her deception and her manipulation of those around her, not because she really is a witch.  Nevertheless, Sweetly is not simply a mission to root out the Fenris and destroy these monsters.

Here, Pearce has created another intriguing parallelism to the modern world with more color and sensuality, a fierce and thrilling novel with spell-binding action, startling drama, and an intelligent, contemplative edge.  Sweetly bites back at werewolves, supernatural horror, and Hansel and Gretel with the sweetness of candy and wise advice as one strong feministic character has to take the reins of a fairy tale by saving herself, her brother, and an entire town from the bloodthirsty machinations of unknown evils.

Original review: Part 1: ‘Sweetly’ is an intense ‘Hansel and Gretel’ retelling with many monstersPart 2: ‘Sweetly’ is an intense ‘Hansel and Gretel’ retelling with many monstersPart 3: ‘Sweetly’ is an intense ‘Hansel and Gretel’ retelling with many monsters, Examiner.com

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