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BOOK REVIEW

'Winter's End' by Jean-Claude Mourlevat, translated from the French by Anthea Bell

The apocalypse, from a young adult point of view.

November 20, 2009|By George Ducker

Pity the poor orphaned teenagers of "Winter's End." It's your pity they're going to need, for the deck has long been stacked against them.

In this overlong, unsatisfying tale -- the first YA offering from French children's author Jean-Claude Mourlevat -- the mythology of revolution plays out against a dismal backdrop of mutant dog-men and a love-struck functionary who rules over a cowed populace.

Helen and Milena, friends at a hellish, penitentiary-like boarding school in a dreary village, discover they are the children of revolutionaries slain 15 years earlier in an unsuccessful battle against a tyrannical regime called the Phalange. As it turns out, their boarding school is actually a holding pen for children whose parents were killed by the Phalangists, children judged too dangerous for the outside world. The students are basically teenage political prisoners.

With a pair of boys named Bartolomeo and Milos from the adjacent school, Helen and Milena manage to escape -- fleeing first into the snowy northern mountains and then south, to the unnamed country's capital city.

Along the way, they're pursued by a pack of mutant dog-men and their master, the gleefully sadistic Police Chief Mills. Under orders from Van Vlyck, one of the top security bosses of the Phalange and the novel's main bad guy, no stone is to be left unturned until the teens, especially Milena, are rounded up.

The teens reunite in the capital city -- sans a captured Milos -- and quickly begin working at Jahn's Restaurant, "a vast canteen for the local factory workers." In actuality, the canteen is the last holdout of anti-Phalangist sentiment, a place that employs far more workers than there are customers to feed.

Here we learn much about the history of the resistance and the roles that Milena and Helen's deceased parents played. Milena has inherited her mother's gift for operatic singing -- one reason Van Vlyck is so desperate to capture her. (We also find out that Van Vlyck was once in love with Milena's mother.) In the gray, gray world of Phalangist rule, Milena's songs -- not to mention the act of singing, which is forbidden -- can provide the rallying cry for the new Resistance.

If you're expecting great plotting or lush descriptions -- supporting columns of any good fantastical story -- the disappointment will be severe. The dialogue is leaden and the book stretches on and on, adding unnecessary business while Helen and Milena spin their wheels and new difficulties pile up.

If it's adventure or thrills you're seeking, well, those too are in short supply. There is, however, plenty of sporadic violence -- much of it involving the captured Milos, who is trained over several weeks to compete in a gladiatorial fight to the death.

There's also a charmingly self-conscious race of horse-men who provide some much-needed muscle to the new Resistance. But, for the characters in "Winter's End" -- and this should go for the readers as well -- the book's end just can't come soon enough.

Ducker is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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