Once upon a time…
😀 😀 😀 😀 + 😀
When the old emperor dies, his young son is given over to the care of a trusted servant who is told to keep him safe from the Regent who will rule till the Prince comes of age. The Tutor outwardly shows loyalty to the cruel Regent but secretly ensures that the Prince is given all the necessary training to fight for his crown if need be when the time comes. But as the Prince becomes a man, he falls in love with a woman who will never be accepted as a suitable bride, and tragedy is certain to follow…
Three linked novellas, the book starts with a retelling of the story of Swan Lake, set into a fantasy kingdom sited primarily in and around the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. In this version, the Regent, soon to be known as the Usurper, murdered the parents of Odette while she was a baby, but her nurse carried her into hiding where she has been ever since, until the Prince meets her while out hunting. The first novella tells the tale of Odette and the Prince, while the second and third tell the story of their daughter, as she first tries to regain the crown from the Usurper and then defend the city against his forces.
“The bakeries are on our east wall. They are much bigger than the yam kitchens, of course. Well, naturally. And the chocolate kitchens are on the south wall. Though the chocolate kitchens have six thousand chefs and workers and we have only three thousand, they are divided by law into three sections – beverages, candy and desserts.”
Helprin’s prose is never less than flowing, often beautiful and occasionally overblown, with distinct shades of purple at points. The sadness and tragedy of the story is told against the backdrop of a fantasy world filled with inventiveness and imaginative humour, which serve to lift the reader out of the unremitting bleakness of the plot. There are satirical elements as Helprin takes sideswipes at various aspects of real world politics – the Usurper’s kingdom bears some similarity to the totalitarian regimes of the mid-20th century. The role of the media as propagandists for the ruling regime is central to the story. Although wars take place over the course of the book, we don’t see them – they happen offstage during the breaks between the novellas. Instead, Helprin concentrates on the personal stories of the three different narrators of each novella and of the young daughter of the Prince, as she grows up to lead the rebellion against the Usurper.
“I had no time to reflect as I planned the defense. We could only guess when the assault would come, but were sure the usurper was saving us for last. Then the capital would be besieged by terrified armies of slaves fighting as slaves for the principle of slavery, and all in the currency of fear.”
This is fundamentally a fairy story – it doesn’t pay the reader to look too closely at the consistency of the politics or to wonder why the replacement of a totalitarian dictator by an absolute monarch is seen as a good thing by Helprin, himself a son of democratic America. There is an undercurrent of a religious theme but this is never fully developed and seemed to me to sit somewhat at odds with the overtly political and militaristic tone of the tale. And, as with many of the old fairy tales, there is no triumphant conclusion – I have seen many reviews saying the book contains an element of hope, but that wasn’t my feeling at all. It seems to me the book is filled with bleakness and despair as two power-hungry factions battle for the kingdom regardless of the suffering and death of those they rule. If there is hope, it must be in the unquestioning loyalty and acts of heroism shown by some of the characters – mistaken loyalty, perhaps, but still admirable.
“But I have not forgotten, for I believe in the unfolding of the tale, that, like water, it cannot be suppressed in its simple will to rise, if it is fed by rains and comes in abundance. The only thing that lasts is the unfolding of the tale, the only thing of which you can be sure.”
The book itself is beautifully produced with 42 full-page illustrations by Chris van Allsburg. The font is large and clear, the paper is thick enough to be almost card stock and each page has a decorative banner at the head. Physically it would make a beautiful gift for a child of about eight or nine up but, although the imaginative world and wonderful illustrations may appeal to someone of that age, I’m not sure that the bleakness of the story will, especially if they like their stories to end with a convincing ‘and they all lived happily ever after’. My own feeling is that the book is much more suited to an adult or ‘young adult’ audience.
I freely admit that fantasy is not one of my preferred genres and my struggles with what I saw as inconsistencies in the plot and ‘message’ of this book may not bother a reader who is more willing to give herself up to the different worldview that fantasy often demands. Overall, the quality of the prose and the inventiveness outweighed the weaknesses for me, and made this an enjoyable read, greatly enhanced by the illustrations and physical quality of the book. My 5 star rating is made up of 4 for the story plus an extra 1 for the book itself.
I was inspired to read the book by this review from Professor VJ Duke. Thanks, Prof!