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

DIY planet ornaments

This Christmas season I’ve really been going all out on the nerdy DIY Christmas ornaments (Tetris ornaments, Ninja Turtle ornaments, and Pokéball wreath). One final project for the season: planet ornaments.

I’ve always been in love with space, and the planets fascinate me to no end. Last Christmas season, I searched online for planet ornaments–assuming such things must exist–and the top result that consistently came back was this glass-blown set of planets and the sun. Pretty sweet ornaments. The price tag of $395, though, was a bit out of my range!

So I looked into planet diagram sets instead, thinking they could be modified into ornaments. I found that a lot of them just come with blank balls that you have to paint yourself, so I figured: why paint some cheapo plastic balls to look like the planets when I can use real ornaments?

The Process

First I gathered some Christmas balls left over from my other projects. Keeping the planets in scale is practically impossible, but I managed to find bigger balls for Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, and small balls for the other planets (and dwarf planet Pluto).

Using acrylic paints, I started with several base coats for each planet, followed by more detailed paint. I hung the planets from my fan, as I didn’t want to set wet spherical objects down on the table to dry, which would leave a mark where the ball touched the table.

Making planet ornaments

After painting them, I coated them with a thick, shiny glaze.

Making planet ornaments

For reference, I used an astronomy book. I don’t think my colors are entirely accurate, but I did the best I could. Turns out painting on a slippery, spherical surface is a lot harder than I thought!

Making planet ornaments.

The Inner Planets

Mercury Ornament

Mercury. The dappled black represents the rocky, cratered surface.

Venus Ornament

Venus, Earth’s twin sister.

Earth Ornament

Earth. In retrospect, I would probably add a layer of clouds on top of the continents.

Mars Ornament

Mars, the God of War.

The Outer Planets

Jupiter Ornament

Jupiter. It’s kind of hard to see in the picture, but the Great Red Spot is there!

Uranus Ornament

Uranus, God of the Sky.

Neptune Ornament

Nepture, God of the Sea.

Pluto Ornament

Pluto, the dwarf planet. In the future, I might make the other dwarf planets, like Eris and Ceres. Pluto was a challenge, as no decent resolution photo exists, making the color hard to figure out. I made Pluto gray with a sheen of blue. This summer, the New Horizons probe will orbit Pluto, so hopefully we get a better sense of its color then!

Saturn

No, I didn’t forget about Saturn! This was the toughest ornament to construct due to the rings. I pondered this for a couple months, trying to figure out the best way to make the rings. Here’s what I came up with. I’m not entirely happy with the construction (or the paint job), but it’s serviceable.

I cut bass wood into two curved pieces and glued them together with wood glue. The wood is 1/8″ thick. I could’ve used thinner wood, but I was afraid it wouldn’t be as durable. As soon as I applied the paint (this is the top layer), the wood started warping!

Making Saturn ornament.

Fortunately, once I applied the bottom layer of paint (not as detailed), the wood warped back into place, straightening out. What a relief!

Making Saturn ornament.

The challenge was now attaching the rings. I made two little tabs out of leftover bass wood and glued them to the side.

Making Saturn ornament.

Top view of the ornament plus tabs.

Making Saturn ornament.

The rings sitting on the tabs. There is a slight gap between the rings and the planet’s surface, just like there should be.

Making Saturn ornament.

Top view of the ornament plus tabs.

Making Saturn ornament.

The completed Saturn ornament!

Saturn Ornament.

Saturn seen from the side.

Saturn Ornament.

Saturn from underneath.

Saturn Ornament.

The Completed Planets

Here’s the entire arrangement of planets, showing you the relative size of each.

Planet Ornaments.

I’m pleased with the final result, though I can honestly say this was the least fun Christmas project I’ve completed so far! The painting was much more challenging than I anticipated, but I’m happy with the result.

In the future, I may paint some exoplanets as well. Even though our telescopes don’t have any detailed photos of what these planets look like, artists have come up with some pretty stellar renditions, based on the probable chemical and physical makeup of these planets.

~Dennis

Easy Tetris Christmas ornaments

Tetris Christmas ornaments

Okay, this will probably be the last Tetris project for a while! A couple weeks ago, I made Tetris refrigerator magnets using pieces from the Jenga Tetris game. I had some pieces left over, so I thought, why not add to my collection of nerdy Christmas ornaments?

This project was really simple. You’ll need:

  • Tetris pieces
  • An electric drill
  • Screw eyes
  • Ribbon

First, drill pilot holes into the pieces themselves. The Tetris pieces are two plastic halves glued together: all of my holes were on the seam. If you try to force the screw eyes in without pilot holes, you risk splitting the pieces in two.

Second, twist in the screw eyes.

Third, tie ribbon through the screw eyes to hang the ornaments.

And that’s it! This is one of those projects where gathering the materials takes far more time than the execution. It took me five minutes to make five ornaments.

Tetris Christmas ornament

Game on,
~Dennis

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Christmas ball ornaments: How-to!

So I had this idea over a year ago for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle ornaments. I saw somebody post it online and thought it seemed like an easy enough project. I think this is the listing I saw, though there now appear to be many variations on the theme.

But then Christmas got busy with my Pokéball Wreath, so the project was shelved.

Until now! Because the Christmas season is so hectic, I thought I’d make these ornaments now and save time later in the year.

So without further introduction, here’s how I made my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Christmas ball ornaments!

Materials needed

  • Four green ball ornaments
  • Blue, red, purple, and orange paint
  • Googly eyes
  • Hot glue
  • Painter’s tape

I used four large balls, plastic, 4″ in diameter. They were on 90% clearance at Hobby Lobby after Christmas, so it was less than a dollar for all four. The googly eyes are 1″ in diameter.

Assembling the ornaments

First, I taped off the ornaments to paint the turtles’ masks. The mask should be in the center of the ornament and should be wide enough that the googly eyes fit inside it. Putting painter’s tape around a spherical object isn’t perfect, and my lines aren’t completely parallel, but close enough!

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle ornament

Then the painting begins. It always amazes me how, even within one brand of paint, some shades go on thicker than others. Leo’s mask took 3 coats, Donnie’s took 4 coats, and Mikey and Raph’s both took 7.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle ornament

I added a new coat of paint about every ten minutes. In between coats, I put my wet brushes into a Ziploc bag to eliminate the tediousness of washing brushes between coats. The baggie works very well in keeping the brushes wet.

After the paint, it was time for the googly eyes!

Googly eyes

The googly eyes have a little flap on the back for sewing them onto dolls. That little protrusion makes gluing them onto a spherical surface a little tough, so I pushed that flap down as best I could. In the picture below, you can kind of see how the left eye’s flap doesn’t stick out as far as the right eye’s flap. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing.

Googly eyes back

Finally, glue the eyes to the masks!

This project was a lot of fun, super easy, and I completed it over the course of two nights. I can’t wait to put them on the tree next year!

~Dennis

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle ornament

Pokeball Christmas Wreath

This year, as I prepared for Christmas, I wanted to come up with a decoration that fit the season but also fit my nerdy, video game interests. I’d seen wreaths before made out of ornament balls, so I decided to make one myself.

Only with Pokéballs!

All you need for this project are Christmas balls, red and green glitter spray paint ($8 a can at Hobby Lobby), a strong wire (like a coat hanger), electrical tape, and ribbon.

First, I gathered the balls, about 70 total.

White and silver Christmas balls

Because the Pokéballs were going to be green and red, I used white and silver balls to fill in the gaps. I eventually added some plain red balls as well.

The larger white balls served as the base for the paint. Putting painters tape around the circumference, I spray painted the tops of half with red glitter paint and half with green.

Spraying green glitter paint on the pokeballs.

I held the balls in my hand and spray painted them, then set them in a box to dry.

I quickly found that the glitter paint was harder to work with than normal spray paint. You can’t really push the button down lightly. If you do, only a clear glue comes out, not the paint. So I held the balls at arms length and tried to apply the paint as lightly as possible. In some cases the paint clumped together as it dried, but other times it stayed on evenly. I’m not sure what caused the difference.

In the future, it’d probably look better to spray the balls with normal green and red paint first, and then put a second, lighter coat of glitter paint on top.

The masking tape didn’t work perfect: sometimes the paint dribbled through.

Red pokeball ornament with paint dribble.

What was most unusual is that sometimes the glue part of the glitter paint pooled at the bottom of the ball, under the masking tape, leaving the sides cleaner than the bottom.

When painting the balls, make sure to leave the “top” hole of the ornament in the center of the ball and toward the back. Once on the wreath, since this messy back-end will be facing the wall, nobody sees too many dribbles.

I followed this woman’s general plan for assembling the wreath. One thing she recommends, which I didn’t realize until all the balls were strung on, is hot glue the metal top of the ball to the ornament itself. Once all the balls are on the wreath, the pressure of so many objects together can cause the balls to pop out of their holders, making it very difficult (and frustrating) to get them back on again.

After all the balls were strung, the wreath was nearly complete. I put about 3-4 small balls between each Pokéball. Because gravity wants to pull all the balls toward the bottom of the wreath, hide any remaining wire at the top with ribbon.

And that’s all there is to it!

Completed pokeball wreath

To make the black line separating the color and white halves, I used electrical tape. I cut strips of tape into four or five smaller stripes, almost like pinstripping, then cut a line circle by hand. The electrical tape sticks well and hides some of the paint dribbles as well.

Overall, I’m pretty satisfied with this project, even if some of the paint on the balls isn’t perfect.

Merry Christmas!

~Dennis

Detail on the Pokeball wreath

Detail on the Pokeball wreath

Update: 1/5/2014

As I packed away my Christmas decorations this season, I couldn’t help but be bothered by all those balls that popped off while I manipulated the wreath. So I took all the balls off the wire, then glued the metal parts in place.

I used super glue, and the process was quite easy, though time consuming. I learned not to pull the metal part off completely: the glue will dry before you bend the little wires to get it back on. So instead I pulled the metal part back just a little bit, put a dab of glue down, then pressed the metal into place.

The only balls I didn’t glue were the Pokéballs. I thought the wreath looked best with all the Pokéballs turned color-side-up, so I left the metal parts unglued so that I could twist them into place once they were back on the wire.

I rethreaded the balls, and only one ball popped off, a green Pokéball at the bottom of the wreath (where all the weight puts pressure on the balls). I’m so glad I took the time to do this. Now I won’t have to wrestle with this wreath next season!

The only task that remains is finding a box that’s wide and flat to store the thing in!