14/12/2012 § Leave a comment
The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs
I grew up reading John Bellairs children’s novels, which I found to be pretty engrossing. Bellairs was extremely adept at setting a mood and developing characters, but his plots tended to be formulaic. Nonetheless, they worked for me. I was revisiting his children’s novels for a writing project when I stumbled across The Face in the Frost. According to Wikipedia, this was his first book, and his only adult novel. Reportedly, Bellairs was inspired to write this after reading Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy.
As far as the story goes, it is certainly Tolkien-esque in plot structure. Prospero is the Frodo character, and Roger Bacon is a blend of the Samwise and Gandalf characters. Bellairs does invert Tolkien’s fantasy plot ever-so-slightly by having Prospero go to the mountain to reclaim a magical globe in order to destroy it, instead of it being given to him.
This journey starts out innocuously enough. Bellairs starts the story at Prospero’s house and makes deft work of setting and character background, and introduces some rather hysterical character elements to the story, such as a talking mirror that can broadcast television shows from the future (the setting appears to be the middle ages in a small European country, possibly an alternate version of Ireland or Scotland, that is close to England). After moving quickly moving through the back story, Bellairs takes the story straight to the action, with Prospero get scared by a couple of supernatural elements. Bellairs is in his element here, setting the mood. He’s not as good with action, so the story progresses fairly quickly through a variety of vaguely dark and frightening settings.
Roger Bacon comes to visit Prospero, confirms that there is indeed quite a bit of black magic targeting Prospero, and so they escape on a model ship from a bottle, and they do so by shrinking themselves. Once free, they head south to visit a library to see if they can figure out what’s going on. They run into one of the southern kings, get some advice from him, and set off again. They come across the villains lair, which has been burned down. They assume their quest is over, but get separated by some black magic as they prepare to go back home. Both Bacon and Prospero independently decide to head north to mountain where the magical amulet is being held. They eventually reunite after a series of dark, mood-setting scenery.
The story is rather convoluted and ends weirdly, but successfully, with Prospero magically overthrowing the evil wizard. In all honesty, this is a terrible story that’s extremely convoluted and occasionally nonsensical.
Nonetheless, the book is still an entertaining read because Bellairs generally sticks to his strengths, which are setting, mood, and character development. Bellairs is simply fantastic at building an overwhelming feeling of doom throughout the course of the book, which tends to make the reader feeling a little panicky and leery of what’s coming next.
He also is able to create compelling characters. The interaction between Prospero and Bacon is developed extremely quickly, yet the reader is able to feel a sense of camaraderie with these characters (and a handful of other side characters as well), and quickly gets a feel for the beats that flesh out these characters.
Bellairs’ ability as a world-builder is partially related to his ability to set the mood because he tends to create worlds that lend themselves to darkness. He manages to convey massive amounts of macro-information about the world in which the characters find themselves by mentioning just a handful of interesting details and letting the readers fill in the blanks for themselves. It’s not a gift that many writers have, which makes it extremely enjoyable to read.
In all, this book makes for an entertaining but confusing read. If you grew up on Bellairs’ children novels like I did, this book is definitely for you, especially if you find humor in the absurd and freakish. If you simply enjoy reading books by someone who creates compelling characters and worlds, this is the book for you. If you want a coherent story, you’re probably better off looking somewhere else.