Thursday, May 17, 2012

Review - The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs

Short review: Two wizards must stop a mysterious menace. Both creepiness and silliness ensue.

Two wizard buddies
A bitter foe, cold winter
Defeat him on Earth

Full review: This is the first Bellairs book I read, after locating it in the "Recommended Further Reading" appendix to the original AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide. The Face in the Frost is one of Bellairs' earliest works, and one of his best. While his later books were aimed at the juvenile market, this book is not. Uninhibited by the need to make the book palatable for the younger set, Bellairs let loose with the full range of creepiness that his mind could come up with while leavening it with a fair amount of almost silly fantasy.

The story revolves around the wizards Prospero and Roger Bacon who find themselves beset with an unseen and unknown enemy. The two flee (in sometimes humorous ways, including shrinking themselves to fit on a model ship), while trying to get information to identify their assailant and figure out why he is pursuing them. The attacks become more and more dangerous and frightening, and the entire world seems affected as an unseasonable winter seems to grip the land. Prospero is informed at one point that Bacon is dead and finds his own life threatened by some extremely creepy villagers.

While the structure of the story itself is fairly simple - wizard is attacked, wizard investigates while on the run, wizard defeats enemy - the atmosphere described in the book is what makes it so good. Bellairs makes each scene a little bit scarier than the last, starting with a somewhat lighthearted tone, and eventually building to a frozen and eerie denouement, albeit somewhat of an anticlimactic one. Eventually Prospero figures out who his antagonist is, and why. He manages to foil what could be the outbreak of a war, but that doesn't really seem to help overcome the villain. Eventually, Prospero finds himself in another universe, and finally manages to defeat the villain.

The slight weakness of the finale aside, The Face in the Frost is everything a fantasy novel should be: funny, scary, and packed with wonder. Unlike many of the door stoppers produced today, in which multiple ponderous seven hundred page tomes advance their story in halting baby steps, The Face in the Frost establishes its setting, its characters, and its villain as well as establishing and resolving its conflict in under two hundred. Many modern writers would do well to look back upon Bellairs' work and see how he managed to create such a memorable story in so many fewer pages.

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  1. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy calls TFITF a "unique classic". Sadly, it is right. I've looked unsuccessfully for a long time for something similar in effect.

    1. The Elfin Ship and its sequel The Disappearing Dwarf are ad close as I've come

  2. John Gordon's The Giant Under the Snow strikes a similar tone of creepiness and wonder.

    1. Agreed, Gordon however makes no attempts at humor or warmth. Giant has the same chilliness of other British fantasy of the time such as The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

  3. @Anonymous: Thank you for the recommendation. I'll have to check out The Giant Under the Snow.

  4. @Anonymous: Hmmm, I haven't run across anything else exactly like The Face in the Frost, but Bellairs' other books have some passing resemblance, especially ones like The Figure in the Shadows and The House with a Clock in its Walls.