J.S.'s Reviews > Claus: Legend of the Fat Man

Claus by Tony Bertauski
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Tony Bertauski’s novel follows the adventures of the Santa family, Nicholas, Jessica and their son Jon, at the North Pole.

And that is as far as your familiarity with the classic Christmas tale will get you.
There’s no Nutcracker here (and if there is, you’d better watch out!). This is a twisted version of Santa Claus.

It is 1818, and the Santa family has boarded the Alexander, the ship which, with the Isabella, under the command of Captain John Ross, was tasked with finding the hoped-for North West passage. Captain Ross was ultimately unsuccessful, turning back east of Baffin Bay when he saw what he thought were mountains blocking egress from Lancaster Sound, but for Tony Bertauski’s Santa family, Ross’ failure is merely the next step in their own quest for adventure and the unknown.

The Santa family goes ashore and slips away from their companions. Lucky enough to be found by the Inuit, over the next two years the Santa’s learn to survive in the harsh climate.

Yet even this is not enough for the risk-seeking family. They decide they need to see the North Pole, against the advice of their hosts. As they travel, the world turns stranger and stranger. Finally, their Inuit guides abandon them to certain death, taking with them the dogs, the sleds and all the supplies. The Santa family is on their own.

And this adventure is just beginning.

Above the Arctic Circle, a civil war has been waging for centuries. On one side, Jocah leads a group of elven forced to move from hiding place to hiding place. On the other side, Jack, the Cold One, squats in his palace at the North Pole and plots his takeover of the entire world. When three warmbloods blunder into his territory, it seems Jack’s plans can finally come to fruition.

The family is separated. Nicholas, captured by Jack’s forces, is kept prisoner in Claus’ lab and will be used to bring destruction to all warmbloods on the planet. Jessica and Jon, meanwhile, find succour with Jocah’s people, where they learn the true nature of the gentle elven and meet the recipients of their genetic modification: Dasher, Dancer

and the boys, who don’t fly, but rather leap prodigiously from place to place, lugging sleigh-fulls of rebel elven behind them.

It’s an odd setting, an even odder cast, but there is something rather satisfying about this not-a-Christmas tale, especially when treated with Bertauski’s wry humour. I laughed out loud when an elven, upon being asked if he was human, took real offense at the notion. The sociopathic Jack appears truly unhinged, yet Bertauski carefully provides real reason for the insanity rather than leave it to ‘he’s bad because he’s bad’. Claus himself is truly ambiguous, a fantastic switch from the Claus tales I have come across in the past. The elven themselves, while stereotyped at the beginning, take on greater complexity and depth. It is as if Bertauski is discovering them for himself as he writes.

I confess I wished more of the novel. While it is obviously not his purpose, Bertauski has missed a wonderful opportunity to educate his audience. Realistic period details are generally lacking. After two years living with the Inuit, it is unlikely that the Santa family would be keeping themselves warm with nothing more than wolf skins. Scenes taking place in Sweden at the turn of the nineteenth century lack the full sensory detail that would bring the characters alive for the reader. And, there is little or no mention of the prevalent social mores that would certainly have stood in the way of the romance between Jessica and Nicholas.

My overall feeling, as an adult reader, was that there was a lot of missed opportunity here. Bertauski raises many moral and ethical questions in this novel, questions which will face his YA audience in a very real way in the near future. The elven have genetically modified the reindeer to suit their needs in a time of war. Nowhere, however, is the question of their right to do this raised. The Santa family themselves are genetically modified without their permission in order to better survive the Arctic. Again, the right of this is not addressed. Jack, the villain, has plans to wipe out the human race; his complaint is that mankind is destroying the planet. Given the realities of climate change today, Jack’s criticisms are valid. His method is extreme, of course, but at least he’s working on a solution. Again, the points are raised, but not addressed.

Still, there are moments of beautiful writing in this novel, where Bertauski raises his prose to an almost literary level. And the theme of the novel, that to walk along the path of truth can be very uncomfortable, is the kind of idea sadly lacking in the day-to-day. In the end, it is not A-bombs, stealth technology and genetic modification that save the day, but plain, bare Truth.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
July 28, 2012 – Finished Reading
July 31, 2012 – Shelved

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