You might call Claus: Legend of the Fat Man by Tony Bertauski a reimagining of the classic holiday origin story a la “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” or “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.” On one hand, it is, but on the other it goes beyond a simple reimagining by modernizing and even expanding the story through the injection of a plethora of science fiction literary concepts.
Nicholas Santa, his wife Jessica, and their son Jon have come to the North Pole in the name of discovery, curiosity, and adventure. While I don’t believe a year is ever given, I envisioned the story taking place around the turn of the century. The frozen north is mostly uncharted and considered extremely dangerous because of the unforgiving climate. This danger does not deter Nicholas from bringing his family here. Quite the opposite, actually, as they go to great lengths to reach this inhospitable environment. This is the first flaw in this book. I found it really hard to believe that anyone, let alone the man who by his very name has his fate intertwined with Christmas and all the good it stands for, would demonstrate such reckless behavior by bringing his family to such a place. As I read along, I imagined there must be a very good reason for it, right? Unfortunately, whatever the reason is escaped me or it simply was never presented. I do not feel the author justified even minimally the ‘why.’ Why does Nicholas want to journey to the North Pole so badly he’d risk his own life and the life of his wife and son? Why does Jessica go along with it? I never did learn to my satisfaction the answers to those basic questions.
Shaky motivations aside, Nicholas, Jessica, and Jon soon find their fates intertwined with the elves of the North and their leader, Claus. But this is definitely not Christmastown. Claus has been imprisoned and the elves splintered by a civil war. Standing opposite Claus is his brother, Jack Frost, who wishes to reunite the elves under his rule no matter the cost. Those who resist Frost are constantly on the run, struggling day by day to stay ahead of their oppressor. Their one advantage and really the only thing keeping them from succumbing to defeat is the technology they have at their disposal: nanotechnology that operates at the cellular level, snow globes that create fierce snowstorms, and reindeer that, yes, have the ability to fly (here they really just jump for very long distances, but same idea).
As the chief inventor of sorts, Claus spearheaded the design and implementation of many devices that utilize the elf’s advanced technology. Given that he is trapped in his laboratory by Jack Frost, he hasn’t had much else to do over the past so many hundreds of years.
If the first failing of this book is character motivation, the second is the characters themselves. There’s Jack Frost, whose childish humor grows old very fast, and Claus, who’s been beaten down by his imprisonment and comes across as very droll and flat as a result. As for the Santa family, none of them stood out in my mind more than the other. Nicholas really doesn’t play much of a role given his predicament (no spoilers), Jessica shows some initiative but her potential was never fully realized, and Jon just isn’t that likable. Last, there’s the elves (whom the author refers to as ‘elfs’ when using the plural), who are many and varied but, like the Santas, never really fleshed out to the point where I cared one way or another about them. The one saving grace might have been the writing, but it’s unfortunately mediocre at best.
Claus earned two stars from me. I think if you go into it with your expectations set appropriately you’ll come out just fine. It’s the first in a series, so if you do like it you’ve plenty more books to satisfy your alternate Santa story desires. For me, though, I’m stopping here.