Admirers of Ayn Rand's novels may scoff at fairy
tales: they are, after all, stories of luck and magic instead of
heroism, usually crudely extolling the values of humility and
self-sacrifice — Robin Hood, or really any Brothers Grimm story,
only strengthens the disdain.
Let then Mark Helprin’s A City in Winter serve to counteract that attitude.
Perhaps “fairy tale” is not an accurate description. A City in Winter is highly stylized — a sketch of a novel, written in broad and sweeping strokes that nevertheless suffice to make it both compelling and complete.
The story follows a bold and proud 10-year-old girl. With nothing to guide her but audacity, righteousness, and vague instructions from her elderly tutor, she ventures alone into the giant central city of her kingdom, now ruled by the fearsome tyrant known only as the Usurper, to claim the throne as the kingdom’s rightful queen.
Apart from the young queen’s breathtaking
character and adventures, which in themselves give the book a
breathtaking, heroic spirit, the presentation of the city also
enriches the story.
We see through the girl’s eyes a phantasmagoria
of central planning, intricately and rigidly structured social
classes, state media control, extravagant and idle nobles — all
well-described, chillingly illustrative and sobering.
And all these descriptions flow in poetical, slightly archaic, high-sounding language, which expertly blends them with the plotline and makes the narration smooth and continuous.
A major undercurrent of A City in Winter is the love of freedom and freedom’s supreme value
to man. Whether that was inserted consciously or no, but the ideas
are refreshing, especially given the dearth of such ideas in
The discussion of freedom becomes especially visible and interesting in the table-side discussions of the local nobles with ambassadors from a neighboring nation of semi-mythical status. These discussions suggest that the book’s target audience does not consist exclusively of children.
And of course, there are the illustrations.
Chris Van Allsburg’s color illustrations perfectly complement the
story’s sketch-like feel. In muted colors, they reflect the
matching scene precisely, without being too vague or superfluously
Most importantly, they pulsate with that mood which pervades the particular scene: the perpetual fear of a repressed city, the anxious secrecy of rebels, the sumptuous idleness of the nobility.
Of these, City is the best, but they are all worth reading. So lapse into childhood and enjoy!
Eugenia Fuchs is currently a student at the University of Chicago. Even though she was not born in the U.S., she grew up there, and thus has been thoroughly indoctrinated with arcane local ideals. Unlike most of her fellow students, though, she doesn’t mind it so much.