Sweet City – The Setting

Image by Denis Doukhan from Pixabay

The architecture of Sweet City is lifted from fairy tales and candy stores. This terrible town is located underground, in a huge cavern held up by red and white striped pillars “as thick as California redwoods”, encircled with a moat of boiling chocolate, while underfoot is polished toffee that is hard as concrete. When Lucy and Amber enter they’re confronted with a sign that simply reads SWEET CITY: THE HAPPIEST PLACE. That, of course, is a direct reference to the famous Disney slogan The Happiest Place On Earth, dropping those last two words to indicate we weren’t on Earth any more. Without them that phrase feels unfinished, a little like a promise that could never be fulfilled, and was designed to subtly unnerve both the girls and the readers.

The majority of the city is constructed of gingerbread and rock candy, although the entry plaza features a toffee fountain festooned with white-chocolate spewing cherubs, hokey pokey park benches, and trees with chocolate trunks and candy floss foliage. “It’s all very Wonka-esque with some Hansel and Gretel thrown in” says Amber immediately and yes, that plaza was designed to give you a sense of the first room the children enter in Willy Wonka’s factory, where everything looks good but is too good to be true.

The Mines

“Rock” candy was the initial inspiration for Sweet City and everything in that part of Book Three is built upon that foundation—figuratively and literally. I knew I wanted someone stealing children from our world but the original reason was that our young were to be a delicacy for certain wealthy Aedeans. Lucy and Amber were to be force-fed, like Hansel in his cage or geese in our world to produce foie gras. But that reason was simply too bleak and, given that I already them imprisoned, I explored prison practices such as forced labour. Chain gangs in popular media were often stereotypically shown in quarries breaking up rocks. Rocks…rock candy…mining rock candy.

The force feeding aspect is still there, employed as a punishment after Lucy’s failed escape attempt, and the original idea inspired the Mad Catter’s decadent dinner party, its creepy guests looking Lucy and Trip over as though they were part of the menu.

Although they were already dangerous, I wanted the rock candy mines to be treacherous so I added in scalding sugar syrup that flows like lava. The need for Lucy and Trip to escape a cave-in forced me to come up with veins of a substance they could tunnel out of, which was marshmallow. The marshmallow’s gross origin is one of my favourite parts of the novel!


I detest circuses. Yes, I’ve used “detest” purposefully there. To me they represent entertainment that appears to be fanciful but which is built upon cruelty, to animals especially. Just like Amber Kim, I also detest clowns and circuses are full of clowns, which is just another mark against them as far as I’m concerned.

Circus in Sweet City is the weekly celebration/revelation of that week’s mining tallies held in a giant tent, the Big Top. It was almost dubbed “Carousel” as a homage to the deadly arena from Logan’s Run. Carousels are also whimsical/creepy but a “circus” can also refer to an ancient Roman amphitheatre. Sweet City’s circus takes place in a place that looks like a big tent from the outside, but inside it resembles a square sports stadium which, of course, is a kind of amphitheatre. I do love words with double, triple, or more meanings. “Circus” can also mean a grand display that is meant as a canny diversion, or something that is an utter shambles, both of which apply to the weekly spectacle held in Sweet City.

The Helter-Skelter

Growing up one treat we were permitted was a weekly black and white humour comic from the UK and if there was ever a carnival pictured within always featured a striped helter-skelter—effectively an upside down cone with a slide wound around the outside.

So when coming up with a way for the children to be sent down to the mines I reached back to those childhood comics. Helter-skelters feel quaint but have a sinister undercurrent as the name also means something confusing or disorderly.

I love rides—the scarier the better—and my favourites plunge you into darkness at some point, which is what happens once the children begin their descent. All this was perfect for how I wanted them to feel as they were sent to work, being thrown into the unknown, into danger.

The Gingerbread Cottages

In the initial draft there were no cottages, but instead a gingerbread high-rise where new arrivals were banished to the upper levels. That first draft was an ode to prison escape stories. But once I realised I was being too timid with Sweet City plot I started throwing in every single candy-story trope.

The idea of living inside a gingerbread cottage sounds romantic but Hansel and Gretel discovered the witch’s cottage isn’t the sweet treat it appears to be and our captives discover bunking in a cramped gingerbread house is no picnic either. One of Lucy’s cabin-mates Javonda complains that “It’s like being stuck inside a cookie” and Lucy herself observes that “The aroma of gingerbread filled up the entire room, suffocating her with its cloyingness” which is exactly what I wanted the overall effect of Sweet City to be.

Some people make gingerbread houses at Christmas and I used those as my visual guide so the cottages are “constructed of slabs of gingerbread and decorated with piping across the roofs, along the exterior walls and around the pretend windows”. Inside the children are bunks that are just further sheets of gingerbread. The gingerbread is noted to be “as hard as wood” so it’s not exactly five star accommodation.

Street Names

There were a lot of sweet based thoroughfare puns to choose from but I whittled it down to four based on each looking and sounding distinct from the others:

QUALITY STREET is a type of boxed or tinned candy manufactured originally by Mackintosh’s. They were named after a play by J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan which provided a link with another part of Book Three.

ROCKY ROAD is a sweet treat made of marshmallow, chocolate, often along with nuts and glace cherries although it’s better known in the USA as an ice cream flavour.

5TH AVENUE is an American candy bar and the real street in New York City it was named after . One of the first things I do when visiting a new country is to sample their local confectionary so I’ve eaten my fair share of 5th Avenue bars. Well, way more than my fair share…

CARAMEL SQUARE is the one name I went back and forth on. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand we would call it a caramel slice—a biscuit based topped with caramel and chocolate. This almost ended up being Custard Square but caramel is more sickly sweet so it ultimately won out.

Bonus Round

Even the Mad Catter’s mansion that sits above-ground is made of candy, although it’s all purple. I never establish what is this substance. While sweets and chocolates are often wrapped in purple, it’s not the most common colour for candy itself. That said, I love grape flavoured candy so in my head that’s how the Catter’s palace tastes. I wouldn’t advise breaking off any to try, however. The Catter isn’t kind to those who take his things…