A City in Winter, by Mark Helprin

I loved Mark Helprin’s novel Winter’s Tale when I read it circa 1990, so I was disappointed to later learn that he’s a conservative commentator.

His 1996 short book A City in Winter has been sitting on my bookcase for a couple of decades now; part of my delay in reading it has been hesitancy because of his political stances. But I finally picked it up and read it yesterday.

[Content warning for this post, for descriptions of fatphobia and other objectionable ideas espoused in this book.]

It’s a more or less fantasy book (I would guess it’s a long novella or very short novel by wordcount), in which a 10-year-old girl, the inheritor of the throne, goes to the city and becomes a yam curler (see below) and eventually overthrows the evil usurper.

I gradually relaxed about the political stuff; the book seemed for a while to be no more objectionable to my sensibilities than any other fantasy novel in which a rightful ruler tries to regain the throne. And in the first half of the book, Helprin seemed primarily focused on portraying a kind of absurdistly huge city—a million people in the palace square on a random evening, ten thousand sacks of yam flour intended specifically for making the crusts of meat pies for one royal luncheon, six thousand chefs and workers in the palace’s chocolate kitchens, etc. (A “yam curler” is a person who sorts yams by sweeping the floor in front of the many different types of yams, to get them to roll in different directions.)

The vastness of the city and the palace reminded me a bit of Gormenghast, and though I wasn’t really clicking with the book, I wasn’t particularly turned off by it either.

But then came the usurper’s-dinner sequence, during and after which we’re exposed to a number of political statements. (You can tell what’s good because the narrator, the protagonist, or the protagonist’s allies are in favor of it. You can tell what’s bad because the usurper or his allies are in favor of it.) For example:

  • Royal blood is good.
  • Queens have a divine right to rule.
  • God is good.
  • Elites (other than kings and queens, of course) are bad.
  • Self-interest is good—better than the collective good.
  • Coercion is bad. (And requiring people to do things that are against their self-interest is coercion.)
  • Mocking fat people is good.
  • Protesting against mocking fat people is bad.
  • Scholars are good, but only good scholars (who seek truth), not bad scholars (who were brought out of asylums and put in universities by the usurper).
  • Doubt is bad; faith is good.
  • Facial scars are a sign of evil. (To be fair, at least there was an in-universe reason for this item; the usurper’s face had been attacked on numerous occasions. But even so, it buys into the standard deformity-equals-evil thing.)

And at one point, one of the princess’s allies indicates that anyone who wants to lead is unfit to lead by definition (an idea I’ve heard in plenty of other contexts), but follows that up by saying to the princess, “You are the only one fit to lead, for you have been born to it.”


Anyway. There were a few pretty phrases early on in this book, and some cute almost-entertaining bits here and there, but overall I didn’t like the book.

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