Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A none-too-kid-friendly mixture of war story and bureaucratic satire, this tale of a 10-year-old queen's quest to regain her throne suffers from a proliferation of heavy-handed and portentous philosophical passages. "I began my journey to the city in blindness and confidence," says the queen, "which, if you think of it, is how we must all live, given the nature of our origin and the certainty of our destination." Helprin (Winter's Tale; A Soldier of the Great War) is at his weakest in his panoramas of an epic war, which are frequently confusing; and strongest in conveying the farcical and magical aspects of the evil Usurper's empire. For example, the enslaved queen is put to work in the yam section of the palace's starch kitchens; she later tours a storage structure of over 600 floors, including a shop for the repair of winter clothing used by podiatrists attached to the rhinoceros-horn carving apprenticeship program. Two-time Caldecott winner Van Allsburg emphasizes the story's dramatic moments rather than its humor. With characteristic poetic stillness and rich depth of color, his paintings cast a warm glow over the icy city. Although the deliberately cryptic narrative style makes for lackluster reading, the book's handsome design with its use of page ornaments and its production on high-quality paper will make it attractive to collectors of finely illustrated works. Ages 10-up. (Oct.)
VOYA - Meg Wilson
Van Allsburg's beautiful illustrations enhance this fantasy tale of a young girl who, at age ten, discovers that she is the rightful Queen of her country. As events rapidly unfold, the heroine transforms from an innocent mountain child into the motivation for millions of revolutionists to wage a lengthy war against the evil Usurper and restore the Queen to her throne. The heroine herself tells the story to her unborn child, who will be born into a world where war still rages against the Usurper. As the Queen reminisces, the reader learns of her bizarre return to her country, aided by many supporters who hide their loyalty to her from the all-controlling Usurper. "Selections" occur after curfew, when soldiers ride through the city gathering any who venture out; many of these are "selected" to die; others, like our heroin, are set to work in the vast kitchens of the palace. With the help of the Usurper's many enemies, the heroine defies the Usurper and fulfills the prophesy of her return. If the plot summary seems a little vague, it may be because the story is at times vague, confusing, and hard to believe, even for a devoted fantasy reader. I read the first three pages thinking the narrator was a man, then reached Van Allsburg's full-page, color illustration of a pregnant woman surveying the smoking chimneys of a city in winter. OH! Now it makes more sense; let me read those three pages again! The audience at which A City in Winter is aimed is difficult to determine. Readers as young as nine or ten may identify with the protagonist, although the retrospective account as related by an adult makes the child wise beyond her years. The blurb on the book's dust jacket claims that it "will enchant readers of all ages," and it may indeed work best as a classroom or family read-aloud. Van Allsberg's illustrations definitely enrich the story; I found myself turning ahead to look at them. A City in Winter will probably be an additional purchase for most libraries. It may circulate best in children's sections rather than Young Adult, because of the youthful protagonist, illustrations and oversized format. VOYA Codes: 3Q 3P M (Readable without serious defects, Will appeal with pushing, Middle School-defined as grades 6 to 8).
School Library Journal
Gr 3-6-A beautiful, if pointless, book. The tale begins with a pregnant queen who is writing her story for her unborn child. She recounts the many murders in her family by the usurper, and her own quest, at age 10, to regain the throne. She speaks of the hardships of war, the grief of parting with loved ones, and the weight of meeting her responsibilities. She ends the story as the actual uprising against the usurper begins, but readers already know how things work out, so all loose ends are neatly tied together. There is a detached tone in the narrator's voice that creates a dreamy quality, which allows readers to move through the story without actually getting involved in it. That dreaminess carries over into the images Helprin uses, and the surreal twists and turns of this convoluted plot. The text, which ranges from tedious double talk to smug inner musings by the child queen, plods along with a destination in mind, though it is too obviously manipulated in several places. Helprin's writing style does add a certain richness to the text; however, it is merely frosting on a cardboard cake. The characters are dismally shallow. Van Allsburg's 13 illustrations are done in his typical style-odd angles, somber colors, and high definition. They competently reflect the text but have the same sterile feel as the narrative. As a story to be cherished by readers of any age, this offering simply doesn't work. It is much too complicated for the elementary crowd and older readers capable of wading through it will undoubtedly prefer something with more substance. J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, or Susan Cooper, to name a few, provide far better tales.-Patricia A. Dollisch, DeKalb County Public Library, Decatur, GA
Two great fantasists weave threads teased from their previous collaboration, Swan Lake (1989), into a stylish tale of loyalty and rebellion set in a city of Brobdingnagian proportions.
Having been raised in secret by her beloved tutor, a princess sets out to confront the brutal upstart who killed her parents and grandparents. She finds in his capitol a million loyalists and former soldiers, all united by an oath of rebellion, waiting for a leader whose coming, a prophecy claims, will be heralded by a dimmed sun and a burning angel. Helprin's whimsical tone and satiric character studies will appeal mostly to adults, but the sheer scale of the city he envisions will enthrall readers of any age; just to get into the palace, the princess becomes one of three thousand employees in the yam section (not to be confused with those for potatoes, rices, and meat pie crusts) of the starch kitchens, later working her way up to flower refresher in one of the smaller dining rooms (for "only a thousand guests"). Van Allsburg's 13 tableaux vary in style: Some are drawn and painted with exquisite precision, others a bit more free in line and composition. The usurper is a towering, scarred figure; the princess is a small, tidy child positively aglow with regal self-possession. As this is framed as a memoir, the outcome is never in doubt; readers will take the most pleasure here not from the plot, but from the richly imagined details.