Author: Mark Helprin
Illustrated by: Chris Van Allsburg
After the first few pages of Mark Helprins magical A Kingdom Clear and Far you get the distinct feeling that you’re reading something timeless. After all, the story is the most elemental of tales. A virtuous, benign emperor dies and his kingdom is taken over by a dark and power hungry advisor known simply as the “usurper”. The usurper stops at nothing to retain his control of the kingdom, and weaves a web of murders, torture, suppression, paranoia and fear amongst his people. The multi-generational tale follows the journey of the orphaned princess, the rightful heir to the throne, and her struggle to regain and ultimately defend her kingdom.
A Kingdom Clear and Far is actually comprised of three separate novellas, all of which formed The Swan Lake Trilogy. The story spans generations and several different narrators, but never loses momentum. Helprins beautiful prose more than makes up for what can occasionally be a clunky plot. Certain passages merit rereading to further appreciate the delicate imagery at work. Behold:
He had no desire to kill animals. This was owing not so much to compassion as to respect, for not even memory can conspire to make a smoother line than the track of a bird wheeling silently in the sunshine over blue water. And when deer step gingerly in the heather, their precision of motion is art, and that is not to mention the perfect rocketry of their escapes. Were they to go faster, the result would not be so pleasing, and were they to go slower, they would not appear to be nobly disciplining themselves against flight.
The end of the book feels far too abrupt, and some of the characters fail to make an impression, but these are minor quibbles. Especially when one has the pleasure of gazing at the seductive, otherworldly paintings of Chris Van Allsburg. You find yourself skipping ahead just to rest your eyes on his rich tapestries.
A Kingdom Far and Clear does not shy away from the tragic, making it more than a mere fairy tale, and perfect for teenagers and precocious children. An ageless ache hides behind every word, and readers both young and old will turn the final page with a sense of utter enchantment.