Book Review: The Krampus Chronicles; the Three Sisters

The Krampus Chronicles: The Three Sisters coverThe Krampus Chronicles: the Three Sisters is the debut novel of writer Sonia Halbach. This historical fantasy novel about the families connected to the famed ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas poem shows us that magical worlds exist right underneath us, if we have the courage to seek them out.

Publisher: Curiosity Quills Press
Format: Paperback and Kindle
Length: 238 pages
Intended Audience: Young adult, though it’s tame enough to be enjoyed by children and intriguing enough to be enjoyed by adults
Genre: Historical, Low Fantasy

The Krampus Chronicles begins with a family feud over the rightful authorship of the famous poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Maggie Ogden always believed her grandfather, Clement Clarke Moore, was the author of the beloved poem, until one Christmas Eve a teenage boy, Henry Livingston, shows up at her grandfather’s mansion, claiming his grandfather, Major Henry, wrote the poem.

The family scoffs at the boy and dismisses him. Later that night, when sneaking into the house to find the proof he needs to vindicate his grandfather, Henry bumps into the curious Maggie. Before she can compose herself before the burglar, the two of them witness a mysterious elf-like creature sneaking through the house, and escaping through the fireplace.

Maggie and Henry follow after and are surprised to discover a secret tunnel leading down to Poppel, a underground village, right under New York City! This city is connected to the original St. Nikolaos, a revered man who was lost to history. Now Maggie, Henry, and her cousins are trapped in Poppel, and the only way to escape is to reunite the spirits of the Three Sisters. They must do this by Christmas Day, or be trapped forever.

The Krampus Chronicles is a story about the magic of Christmas, but it’s much more interesting than the trite Christmas tales you’ve seen on TV. Halbach’s done her homework into the legends behind Santa Claus, and weaves European and American folklore together to craft a Christmas story that threw into question everything I thought I knew about Santa Claus.

While the story takes places on Christmas Eve, it’s more than “just a Christmas story.” There aren’t any clichéd messages about the power of family, the joy of giving, the holiness of Christmas, or any of the fare we’re used to seeing this time of year. Not that those messages aren’t good, or that stories that contain those messages are bad. But Halbach gives us something new to think about, especially in the figure of the Krampus, a sort of anti-Santa Claus that punishes the bad kids instead of rewarding the good ones.

Despite being the character mentioned in the series title, the Krampus is more of a shadowy figure in The Three sisters, operating outside the perception of most of the characters. The Three Sisters mostly stands alone as the first book in this series, though a few plot points are set up regarding the Krampus that I’m sure Halbach will delve into in future books.

In interest of full disclosure, I should mention at this point that I personally know Sonia. We were both raised in North Dakota and went to school together, but our connection back then was minimal. I might be a bit biased in that I want my friend to succeed with her new series. At the same time, as somebody who doesn’t read a lot of historical fiction, I can honestly say that this novel hooked me in a way I didn’t expect.

I’ve always enjoyed stories about secret knowledge, about magical places that are right around the corner from our everyday, ordinary world. This story starts out a bit slow, but a few chapters in, we’re suddenly transported to a Christmasy, almost steampunk (in only the loosest sense) world. The story is grounded enough in reality that it feels real, and it feels like maybe there is some truth to these legends. I frequently took breaks in my reading to look up the various locales and folk stories Halbach referenced to see how she took these disparate, somewhat contradictory ideas and used them as the foundation for her own mythology.

In a way, this story reminded me of the work of H.P. Lovecraft, particularly his story The Mountains of Madness. Lovecraft was fascinated with secret knowledge, and in the Mountains of Madness, an expedition team in Antarctica discovers a giant, abandoned alien city hidden behind mountains of ice. That story was written at a time when Antarctica hadn’t been explored yet; there was no satellite imagery of the continent. It was possible that people had lived in Antarctica at one time, and I’ve always been fixated with that possibility.

Similarly, it’s possible that in the 19th Century there was a city built into the bedrock of Manhattan. Why not? That city has miles and miles of subway tubs going every which way. And stories still circulate today about so-called “mole people” who lived under New York. Regardless of what the reality is, in Halbach’s fictional universe, this underground city does exist, and for me, that’s enough.

The fantasy elements in the Krampus Chronicles are fairly light. They mostly concern magic “sister wheels” that the main characters seek to collect so that they can end their imprisonment. The story has some violence, and some killing, but most of it happens off-screen (or off-page, as it were). When I heard this was a Young Adult novel, I braced myself for a novel in the line of the gritty, angsty, violent, and even sexified YA novels that have proven popular in recent years.

Fortunately, I was way off! The kids are teens, and there is a hint of a love triangle, but Halbach stays away from the trappings of YA as of late to tell a story that can be appreciated by older children, teens, and adults alike.

For all that this book accomplishes, it’s not without faults. Perhaps the most serious is the overwhelming amount of characters. Maggie’s family is quite large, and she has half a dozen cousins who all play a role as the story unfolds. Once the teens get to Poppel we meet a least a couple dozen new characters, and new characters even come up in some of the later chapters. It’s a bit hard to follow at times, especially because I wasn’t sure which characters would be important and which were throwaway.

However, this criticism is mitigated somewhat because there will be more books in the series. The trouble with any first book in a fantasy series is not only telling a solid story that payoffs by the end, but also in establishing a (typically) large cast of characters, plus building the fantasy world and establishing the rules for how it works. It’s a lot of tasks to juggle, and Halbach handles it well.

The other part of the tale I wasn’t in love with was the idea that all of this happens over the course of a day. Lots of stories, from books to television shows to movies, use this format. I personally think it’s hard to have significant character development in such a short span of time. Sure, these characters see a lot and learn a lot about their own family and world, but learning a lot doesn’t correlate to inner change. I don’t know about the reader, but in my own life, it seems that those moments of intense busyness and revelation actually require a long time to process what actually happened to me.

On the other hand, I can forgive this plot structure a bit because the day that everything happens is Christmas Eve/Christmas morning. Christmas is a magical time, and I think the most magical part of the holiday is that transition between Eve and Day. The waiting for Christmas to arrive, and then the first few hours of wakefulness of Christmas morn when all the waiting finally pays off. So if you had to pick a single day out of the year to condense your story into, Christmas would be it.

After all, who hasn’t gone to bed with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads?

~Dennis

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