|The Veil of Snows|
|Mark Helprin; illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg|
|Viking Childrens Books, 128 pages|
A review by Jennifer Goheen
In olden times a Queen and an usurper fight for control of a kingdom. The story is narrated by a singer of old songs. At first the usurper is in control and he summons the narrator to ask him to change his songs. The narrator refuses and is thrown in a dungeon. Luckily, the Queen's army soon conquers the usurper and the narrator is released from jail and joins the Queen's guards. The Queen has to deal with the greedy, stupid and selfish Tookisheims, who don't like the way she rules and who say bad things about her in their newspapers. They find a small girl who has seen the usurper destroy her village. Pretty soon the tricky usurper returns with a large army and the narrator has to make a plan to save the city. When the Queen has to choose between a man's life or her kingdom's fate, which does she choose? There are many bloody battles before the surprising ending.
This book had a good plot, interesting characters and a great ending. Most of the main characters are never given names, which makes them more mysterious. The Queen and the narrator are brave, wise and proud, while the Tookisheims and the usurper are evil and greedy. There is a lot of description, but not a lot of dialogue. The story is sad at times but hopeful at the end. The pictures are colorful and realistic and they do a good job of describing the story.
I liked this book and would like to read the earlier stories in this trilogy - Swan Lake and A City in Winter. I would recommend this book for middle-school-age and older fans of adventures and historical fantasy.
Jennifer Goheen recently started middle school, where she plays clarinet in the band and is active in Girl Scouts. At any given time she is typically reading 5 or 6 different books, and her literary interests range from fantasy, horror and mystery to historical fiction and classic children's literature. She has a cat named Misty and is actively trying to convince her father to let her have a dog.
A review by Chris Goheen
In a faraway, timeless kingdom, the forces of the rightful Queen struggle against a tenacious usurper who will stop at nothing to maintain power. The story is narrated by a singer of tales, who we first encounter as an old man fetching water from a mountain stream within sight of the magical Veil of Snows dividing the known world from the shadowy unknown. Many years earlier, the powerful usurper had gained control of the kingdom and ruled with an iron fist from a palace in the heart of the vast capital city, which he fortified with a hundred thousand troops. Although the audiences for the singer's traditional tales have dwindled almost to nothing, the usurper realizes that as long as the old tales are kept alive, there is a flickering candle flame which could eventually ignite a firestorm against his rule. The singer also realizes the power of these ideas and is thrown into the deepest dungeons beneath the city for defying the usurper's demand to rework the songs to praise him. The singer draws upon his own defiant spirit to survive the torture until the Queen's forces prevail and he is freed. He immediately enlists in the service of the Queen and is placed in her personal guard.
The Queen has spent most of her young life in endless military campaigns against the usurper. Her regal bearing is enhanced by her deep empathy for her subjects and her utter lack of pretension. Her reign is characterized by a deep concern for personal liberty and freedom of expression, even in the face of potentially damaging opposition led by the Duke of Tookisheim and his loathsome relations. The Tookisheims represent all that is base in human nature, much as the Queen and the narrator represent all that is noble. Like William Faulkner's Snopes clan, the Tookisheim brood includes all sorts of offbeat characters (with equally colorful names) who have somehow manipulated society to gain control of much of the business, industry and media in the kingdom.
Matters come to a head when the the Queen interrupts a dinner party at the Tookisheim estate to rescue a small girl who has washed up on the shore of the great lake at the base of the cliff on which their house sits. When the Tookisheims demand that the girl be put out on the street, the Queen can no longer contain her disgust at their rapacious greed and forces them to provide the child food and shelter. Blows are exchanged, the narrator kills one of the Tookisheims, and open rebellion quickly ensues. Even worse news follows, as the Queen's army, led by her husband, has disappeared and the usurper has somehow returned from the Veil of Snows at the head of a vast army. The Queen places the narrator in charge of preparations for the expected seige, a task which he handles quite ably. Vastly outnumbered in personnel and firepower, the loyalists hold off the usurper's huge conscripted armies throughout the long winter. Both sides employ ingenous strategems, but eventually things begin to look grim for the Queen's supporters. Their last hope is to abandon the city and scatter to the hinterlands where they can disappear into the mountains and bide their time.
We travel an emotional rollercoaster as things look alternately hopeful and hopeless for the loyalists. Eventually, the Queen's overriding empathy for a wounded soldier places herself, her infant son and her small personal bodyguard in grave danger. As we know, the narrator survives to tell this, his last and greatest tale, so we learn of the fate of the others. Back in the present, we soon see with his eyes the glorious and surprising event for which he has been unknowingly waiting all these long years.
The Veil of Snows is a wonderful book which can be appreciated on many levels by a wide range of age groups, a literary and visual treat epitomizing the best in young adult literature. This is a great book for parents and children to share, although there are several violent scenes which may be too intense for very young children. The style and imagery are fairly complex and possibly overly challenging for many preteen readers on their own, so I would encourage adults to read this book to (or along with) children in that age group so they can more fully appreciate its beauty.
Chris Goheen has a doctorate in chemical engineering and currently works in the field of on-line process optimization. After many years of playing College Bowl and other academic quiz games, he finally made it onto Jeopardy! and won a modest sum. An avid reader of science fiction and fantasy in his teen years, over the last decade his reading interests have leaned more towards mystery, 20th century world literature and works of non-fiction. He has recently developed an interest in children's and young adult literature and re-discovered fantasy while reading with his two children.
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