Image © Mark Helprin and Chris Van Allsburg.
Chris Van Allsburg is probably best known as the writer and artist of the book “The Polar Express.” This is one of three by Mark Helprin illustrated by Van Allsburg, and the book is formatted in a similar style to the artist’s other books that I’ve seen. At 8 by 10 inches, and 148 pages, it straddles the boundary between picture book and children’s novel. The illustrations are gorgeous, often making good use of perspective and low viewing angles, two Van Allsburg trademarks.
The story by Helprin has many good qualities, and some that bothered me as well. The prose is often full of strong, evocative imagery that rivals the pictures. It’s told from the perspective of a young girl from distant mountains who is secretly a princess destined to rule the massive city she comes to, or so she’s been told, but at present that city is ruled with iron control by “the usurper,” who killed her parents. As the innocent girl is swept into city life and put to work in the massive kitchens of the royal palace, she finds friends who help her toward her destiny, though that path is dangerous for all of them. The emotional arc of the story works well, and I liked the characters, but the book is full of impossible things (like a single room filled with ovens for baking that takes hours to travel through) that kept pulling me out of the story. The plot is also full of lucky coincidences and deus ex machina solutions that don’t play fair. I suppose I might have accepted such things with less trouble in my own childhood, so perhaps this book is not for me. In all, I liked it, but never fully fell into the story, as I think one should with a fantasy. The “willing suspension of disbelief” was too difficult.