Thursday, October 7, 2010

Review - The Mansion in the Mist by John Bellairs

Short review: While vacationing in Canada, Anthony stumbles upon an alternate reality full of evil sorcerers. Adventure ensues.

In another world
A creepy Gothic mansion
Wizards must be stopped

Full Review: As one would expect in a book written by John Bellairs, The Mansion in the Mist features a youthful and thoughtful protagonist with an older mentor who finds supernatural trouble and overcomes it with some grit, determination, and plucky courage. The book does not, however, feature either Johnny Dixon or Lewis Barnavelt. Though Bellairs is best known for his two main series of books featuring Dixon and Barnavelt respectively he also wrote a truncated third series featuring Anthony Monday as the central character. Although the Anthony Monday series never really got off the ground, and has far fewer books than either of those, it displays the same Bellairs style that makes the adventures of his better known heroes so enjoyable.

The basic outline of The Mansion in the Mist follows the Bellairs formula. Anthony Monday is a preteen boy bookish enough that he works at his local library. Like Bellairs other youthful protagonists, Anthony's closest confidante is a much older mentor. Just as Dixon has Professor Childermass, Lewis has his uncle Johnathan, and Rose Rita has Mrs. Zimmerman, Anthony has the elderly librarian Miss Eells. Somewhat unusually for a Bellairs mentor, Miss Eells is not steeped in occult lore, so her brother Emerson, a dabbler in occult lore, is also inserted into the story. This feature of Bellairs' young adult books - a young protagonist whose closest friends are much older and wiser - gives the stories a kind of charming quaintness. It also dates them, as in the current era of child-molesting Catholic priests one simply could not imagine parents condoning a close platonic friendship between a twelve year old boy and a sixty-something year old woman, let alone the various other "young tween and older person" relationships that feature in the books. Such caution is only to be expected, but it is sad that this sort of relationship, which Bellairs demonstrates could be so beneficial to kids struggling to find their own identity in the hostile world of their own peer group, has become taboo.

The story itself is fairly straightforward: Anthony and Mrs. Eells join up with Emerson to go spend the summer at his rustic cabin on a lake island in the middle of the Canadian woods. As noted before, a tween spending his summer in an isolated cabin with a pair of elderly siblings he is not related to would raise more than a few eyebrows today, but in the 1950s when the story is set the only impediment seems to be securing parental permission, which is so easily obtained that this detail is handled entirely off-stage. The trio are soon happily amusing themselves with days of hiking and fishing and nights of singing around the piano and card-playing in the glow of oil lanterns. Of course, this being a Bellairs book, evil must lurk around the corner, or in this case, at the bottom of a wooden trunk that mysteriously appears and vanishes.

As the hero of the story, Anthony is the one to discover the trunk (and some other clues), and to find the strange world to which it leads. Once there, Anthony discovers that the band of evil wizards and witches who have dubbed themselves the Autarchs and rule this alternate reality are plotting evil deeds that may threaten our world. After returning, Emerson quickly takes up the cause of preventing the villains from invading Earth, and the adventure gets underway. The trio jump back and forth from our universe to the dark and creepy alternate world of the Autarchs until the pathway through the trunk is eliminated. The band of heroes have to set off to find another way to reenter the dark fairy land of the Autarchs (although the highly practical Miss Eells is less than enthusiastic about the idea), recover the item that gives the evildoers their power, and destroy it. The story moves along at a fairly rapid pace, with only a few contrived coincidences helping the main characters along, and enough mystery to keep the reader from being certain what is going to happen next.

The only real problem with the book is the Autarchs. As a group, they are fairly bland. The only one who even stands out as a character is the leader of the cabal, the Grand Autarch. The rest are more or less just as faceless and undifferentiated as the minions they order about. And the grand Autarch isn't even that interesting. Rather, the Grand Autarch's villainy seems to be completely unmotivated by anything other than a desire to be evil. The Autarchs, as a group (and the Grand Autarch specifically) are basically evil because they want to take over the world, and they want to take over the world because they are evil. This is not unusual for a Bellairs villain: many of the evil characters in his books are basically wooden villains like the Grand Autarch. But even though this is a pattern Bellairs repeats in more than one book, it is still a weakness in the story. One might excuse this lack of motivation for the antagonists on the grounds that this is a book aimed at younger readers who just need to know that the villain is villainous, but that seems like a weak argument to me. Quite simply the fun and enjoyable story told in the book would have been substantially improved if the opposition had been more fully fleshed out and given some sort of reason to be evil other than "they are evil".

Despite the one flaw in the book, The Mansion in the Mist is quite good. Like all of Bellairs other young adult books the protagonist is a likable character surrounded by friendly and well-written adult mentors. Even though the villains are somewhat wooden, the adventure is fun to read, and there are just enough twists in the story to keep things interesting. For anyone who is or who knows a young reader with a taste for Gothic fantasy who would like a book set in a somewhat idealized 1950s, this book is an enjoyable ride.

Previous book in the series: The Lamp from the Warlock's Tomb

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