Winter's Tale was interesting to me. When I encountered it I read some reviews and felt it was definitely one for my list. I added it as the last of my 'foundational' or pre-2007 works. When I showed my list to some people they told me that this book wasn't Steampunk. I balked. The review called it steampunk, it seemed to have all of the elements. So I read it, and... well... Well, it took me six months to write this review, because I kept going back and forth. Lets start with the Steampunk Factor.
Technofantasy: 15 This is hard. Is Winter's Tale a technofantasy? Is Magic Realism fantasy? In technofantasy magic-like effects are realized through the veneer of technology. Magic may be present, but it is a separate and non-overlapping magisteria. It is like pre-prequel Star Wars. There is technology that does impossible things. And there is magic, or the force, that does other impossible things, but they are not the same things. In Winter's Tale there is magic. There are machines that realize magical ends. But there is no distinction made.
Neo-Victorianism: 15 Helprin's world is not our world. In some ways it's Ayn Rand's world with mysticism. That is not really fair. Helprin is no objectivist, he is a 19th c. style liberal. It is set in early 20th c. New York, and in a left turn modern day, with people stuck in a world where many 19th century ills were never righted, and places like the five points continued into the end of the millenium. His characters and the story pull me in and make me suspend disbelief, at least most of them do. His ridiculous characters, straw men proxies for hippies and Rupert Murdoch respectively, ruin the story whenever they are inserted.
Retrofuturism: 25 It doesn't look to a Retro-future. But to a degraded present and a hope for better in a different way. It is set in early 20th c. New York, and in a left turn modern day, with people stuck in a world where many 19th century ills were never righted, and places like the five points continued into the end of the millenium. The future is retro- but not a shiny utopia.
Other: I loved it, and could add points for enjoyment, but really there are no intangibles that enhance this books Steampunkiness.
Total: 60 - marginally Steampunk
I had just finished Morlock Night when I read Winter's Tale, and I initially argued that Winter's Tale stands better on Steampunk grounds that Morlock Night. Why is Morlock Night steampunk, while Winter's Tale is not?
Both books are urban fantasies taking place in 19th/early 2oth century settings, dealing with immortal/ancient beings who wield mystic and technological power (more so with Winter's Tale than Morlock Night). Winter's Tale is more in love with the machine than Morlock Night, which save for two artifacts, the submarine and the time machine, is more concerned with pulling details from 'London Poor' than any form of tech. Winters Tale is a love poem to the machine and the transformative power with which it can lift a person.
Winter's Take is more in love with the machine than any other novel I have read recently. It is in love with it as a symbol of perfection, it is in love with it as a means of salvation, and it is in love with it as a means of doing work. But oddly it is not a Steampunk love. A steampunk's love of the machine is that of an artist finding beauty in cogs and oil, it is the love of the obsessed mechanic or inventor. WT's love is that of able craftsman, and the mystic, I was surprised but it's a different love.
So is Winter's Tale Steampunk? Yes, I think it is, but it's a different ride. It is in much the way that 'The Prestige' is steampunk, introspective. It scored low because the elements are mixed up, but it's going to be of definite interest to steampunks and is worth a read.