BY ERIC MARKOWSKY
Author: Mark Helprin
1983, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Filed under: Fantasy
Since the cold weather has settled in for the winter, I’ve been thinking about good seasonal reads. You can’t do much better than Winter’s Tale. It’s an epic urban fantasy set largely in New York City, first at the end of the 19th century and later vaulting deep into the 20th. Filled with orphans, thieves, priests, police, machinists, wise old men, and powerful women of incomparable beauty, Winter’s Tale offers a classic adventure story in strangely modern dress.
The long and winding plot is a little difficult to summarize. The novel is divided into four sections, each one seeming to reset the story in a new place or time. Its nearly seven-hundred page bulk might turn away some potential readers, but I found its size made it an even better winter read. It’s a great book to lose yourself in when it’s cold outside.
The book opens with a chase: Peter Lake, a master thief and machinist, fleeing the Short Tails, a blood thirsty gang lead by the greedy Pearly Soames. Just when his fate seems certain, Peter Lake is saved by a white horse that escaped from its stable in Brooklyn to trot freely through the streets of 19th century Manhattan. This moment of flight sets Winter’s Tale in motion, sending it hurtling (eventually) towards the brink of the 21st century, bridging time and worlds.
For such a long read, it’s surprisingly fast-paced, clipping along at the rate of your typical fairy tale. It somehow manages never to lose its “Once upon a time” feeling even when narrating New York City politics. There are a few strange diversions into discourse on actual political issues, like, for instance, the minimum wage, but while these diversions are tonally out of place they are thankfully short.
Towards the end, Winter’s Tale does start to feel repetitive. There’s a lot of buildup, moving pieces into place for the big finale, and the buildup begins to feel prolonged, stretched past the point of suspense and teetering on the edge of tedium. In general, the storytelling is good enough that even the repetitions manage to entertain, and on more than one occasion impending tedium is redeemed by the language.
If you’re a sucker for a good turn of phrase, then Helprin has a lot to offer. The writing is lyrically beautiful and always pitched towards maintaining the epic feel of the novel overall. The narration is filled with authoritative one-liners, many of which have stuck with me since I first read this book. For example: “To be paid for one’s joy is to steal.”
Or, for a better example of this novel’s particular brand of lyricism, take the last paragraph of the prologue, where the narrator draws the reader through “a lake of air” to the city waiting at the bottom:
From our great height it seems small and distant, but the activity within it is apparent, for even when the city appears to be no bigger than a beetle, it is alive. We are falling now, and our swift unobserved descent will bring us to life that is blooming in the quiet of another time. As we float down in utter silence, into a frame again unfreezing, we are confronted by a tableau of winter colors. These are very strong, and they call us in.
If you’re a fan of long adventure novels, I’d recommend following the narrator down through the lake of air. If not, you might still give it a try for a good cold weather distraction. At the very worst, it might nearly be spring by the time you finish.
Similar reads: Swan Lake Trilogy (Helprin), His Dark Materials Trilogy (Pullman), Things That Fall From the Sky (Brockmeier)