Written by Brittney Ryan
Illustrated by Laurel Long
Published: 2004

New York City, 1878

It had once been a grand house, but not now. The ballroom, where ladies in pink and blue satin dresses had whirled on the arms of mustachioed gentlemen, was gone, and in its place there were three apartments. The rooms had been divided, and then divided again, until the whole of that grand house was filled with tiny slots overflowing with children who didn’t quite get enough to eat, mothers who scrimped and made do, and fathers who left before dawn and came back long after dark.

Ten-year-old Christopher, alone in a sliver of an apartment near the top of the house, was wholly absorbed in the smooth wood in his hands, his eyes fixed on the creature he saw trapped inside the block. Steadily, precisely, he carved it out.

Originally I was going to skip the week of Christmas, figuring that people will be too busy celebrating the holidays in some way, shape or form to want to bother with a blog entry. But then I remembered this gem on my shelf and decided I should do a Christmas Special anyway.

Among all the seasonal books one can find in a library, Christmas books are by far the most numerous. I would like to share a particular favorite of mine, one that I read almost every year, although I no longer recall how I received it. That book is The Legend of Holly Claus by Brittney Ryan. It’s a delightful expanded fairy-tale with a dash of Dickens, a dollop of romance, and a hearty helping of wonder.

Nicholas Claus, better known as Santa, is the ruler of Forever, the Land of the Immortals where centaurs and fairies gambol beside Greek goddesses and the souls of humans who have bettered mankind. Santa’s duty is to bring toys and wonder to the children of the world. But in 1879, a single letter from a poor boy named Christopher changes everything. Instead of asking for presents, Christopher asks Santa what he would like for Christmas. The wish of Santa and his wife is for a child and they are blessed with a beautiful daughter who is christened Holly. But celebrations are cut short when an evil warlock named Herrikhan, long ago banished for his heinous crimes against humanity, appears.

Herrikhan can only leave his prison for short periods of time. In order to be truly free, he must possess the purest and most compassionate heart. A heart that Holly possesses. However, it can only be given freely, so Herrikhan cannot simply take her heart by force. He must wait until she is old enough to choose (or, in his word, be married.) To preserve Holly’s heart, the key to his salvation, Herrikhan encases her heart in ice, which will kill her if it melts. He also casts a curse on Forever, preventing all of the immortals from leaving. Only Santa can pass beyond the borders, and only on Christmas Eve.

Santa, his wife Viviana, and Holly’s godmother, the Russian goddess Sofya, take steps to protect Holly from Herrikhan’s curse. She is kept in perpetual winter, carefully shielded from warmth and danger. Holly grows to be a strong, intelligent, curious, and utterly kindhearted person. But she is also quite lonely. Her only friends are several of the talking animals in Forever, most notably the white wolf Tundra; the rest of the inhabitants are afraid of being further cursed by Herrikhan if they get too close to her. An enchanted telescope shows her the best aspects of the mortal world, especially a place called “Empire City” (New York to us mortal folk), and her longing to visit grows.

As the only child in the Land of the Immortals, not only is Holly isolated, but she also begins to feel that she has done nothing to earn her immortality, which only strengthens her desire to go to Empire City and help others. Her chance comes during a special cosmic event only a few days before Christmas, and Holly finds more than she ever could have imagined in Empire City… including true love.

The Legend of Holly Claus is a wonderful tale that weaves elements from several fairy-tale traditions. Filled with lovely characters and beautiful descriptions, it is an enjoyable (if rather long) read. Holly is a sweet person, whose innate goodness is saved from being too cloying by her earnestness and hard work. Tundra the wolf is the most fleshed out of the animal secondary characters, and the various people Holly encounters, from the street boy Jeremy and his band of orphan ragamuffins to the kindly shopkeeper Mr. Kleiner and his wife, feel as if they stepped out of a Dickens novel.

Herrikhan the warlock is suitably and irredeemably evil, if a little flat (which I forgive because this is essentially an extended fairy-tale, and fairy-tales are not known for characters with more than two dimensions.) The book also contains numerous gorgeously detailed ink illustrations by Laurel Long, which gives it an older, more authentic feel, despite being published in 2006 rather than the 1800s.
So, if you’re you’re looking for a good story to while away a few hours with in front of a roaring fire with (several) cups of hot cocoa, then I highly recommend The Legend of Holly Claus and its enduring message: “Love Conquers Time.”

Note: This review was originally written for The Fellowship of the King, then was republished on the new site Fellowship & Fairydust on December 17, 2014.