Sunday, September 20, 2009

REVIEW: The Face in the Frost

Bellairs, J. (1969) The Face in the Frost. New York: MacMillan.

Thirty second summary: Prospero the wizard and his friend Roger Bacon must make a perilous journey to locate and defeat Melichus, a villain of unparalleled evil who plans on destroying Prospero and summoning a perpetual winter.

Several centuries (or so) ago, in a country whose name doesn’t matter, there was a tall, skinny, straggly-bearded old wizard named Prospero, and not the one you are thinking of, either. So begins The Face in the Frost, one of John Bellairs’ first novels, but in my opinion one of his best.

The book is chock-full of some of the most perfectly imaginative ideas ever, from miniature sailing ships making their way through underground rivers, to a king with a clockwork galaxy in his castle tower, to a grumpy and tune-deaf magic mirror that accompanies its singing with even more out-of-tune bagpipes. (“O-over-head the moon is SCREEEEAMING...”) When Roger Bacon tells Prospero that “one should not attribute a very high degree of reality to [his] house,” you’ll completely agree.

Keep in mind, though, that there’s a reason this book, originally aimed at children, has more and more found itself described as an adult fantasy novel. There is true evil in Face -- not the “omg Edward is such a brooding and potentially dark vampire” kind, but rather a shifting, creeping, shadowy evil that vanishes when you look too closely and reappears when you’re not expecting it. Some people die, and some come back to life, and some may never have existed in the first place.

His hand was on the latch when he heard another voice---not the whispering leaf voice but a little girl’s weak cry.
“Help me! I can’t get out!”
He turned and ran to where he saw a small white blur under a willow tree. But when he clasped the child to him, her head crunched under his hand and the whole body turned to crackling fluttering paper. In the air someone was laughing, and the laughter was more horrible because it was a child’s---wet, gulping, and somehow harsh
(p. 83).

Now, don’t let the Scary put you off – I was telling the truth when I said this was one of my favorites of Bellairs’. It’s witty and hysterical and dripping with magic. There an almost regrettable last-minute deus ex machina ending, which I felt stole something from Prospero and Roger’s quest (I won’t give it away, but keep an eye out for a dealer in used back doors), but since they never cast themselves as “questing” in the first place, it’s not as disappointing an issue as it might otherwise have been.

The illustrations are brilliant, although not, unfortunately, particularly compelling as a cover image. Call me snooty, but I require more in a cover than black-over-brown line drawings. Thankfully, that was remedied in later editions.

The biggest problem with Face in the Frost is locating a copy! It was (thank goodness) reprinted within the last few years through Olmstead Press, but even those copies seem few and far between. Luckily, there should still be some lurking around your local school or small-town library. Trust me, the hunt is well worth it.

Quotes of Note:

Prospero bent to set the candle down, and then, straightening up suddenly, he walked to where the slumping figure stood. Grasping her shoulders, he shook her violently. There was a clatter on the floor at his feet, and when he looked down he saw a long, slightly curved butcher knife. He looked up at the women again and stepped back with a gasp. His hand went to his face and his staff fell to the floor. The woman’s eyes were gone. In her slowly rising head were two black holes. Prospero saw in his mind a doll that had terrified him when he was a child. The eyes had rattled in the china skull. Now the woman’s voice, mechanical and heavy: “Why don’t you sleep? Go to sleep.” Her mouth opened wide, impossibly wide, and then the whole face stretched and writhed and yawned in the faint light (p. 94).

”Hum,” said Prospero. I do hope no one is out fishing on the lake. I’m not sure what I’d do if I saw a wee little ship scooting past my rowboat, but I think I might be tempted to smack it with an oar” (p. 44).

”But I can’t ride a horse!” said Prospero. “You know that. I was frightened of ponies when I was a child” (p. 120).

Hungry Readers Exclamatory Rating:

If you thought this was delicious, try:
Mister Monday by Garth Nix
With a main character who is every bit as confused as Prospero, and a big to-do about a key, you'll think you're reading the same book! Almost. Only with completely different plots....


  1. John Bellairs' "The Face in the Frost" was always intended as an adult fantasy novel. Later critics have mistakenly assumed that all of Bellairs' fiction was intended for a young adult audience. "The Face in the Frost" is not only more frightening than his later young adult fantasies, it is also filled with esoteric and historical references obviously aimed at adults. It was written before he wrote "The House with a Clock in Its Walls", his first young adult fantasy.

  2. Oh, was it aimed at adults originally? How funny! I suppose it shows the danger of authors becoming pigeonholed -- regardless of his intended audience, Bellairs' "Face in the Frost" gets shelved right alongside the rest of his books in the Juvenile section.

    Let's be serious, too -- even if adults are the intended audience, that doesn't mean young adults and children aren't going to love it. (Even the cover of my copy says it will "enthrall any young or adult reader.") If I only read the books that were intended for my age, education level, demographic group, etc. then I wouldn't be the happy hungry reader I am now -- I would have starved to death during middle school on a diet of nothing but Sweet Valley Twins and Lurlene McDaniel. ;)

    Plus, there’s nothing to say that kids can’t enjoy the odd esoteric or historical facts. When I first read Pamela Dean’s "Tam Lin," I spent the entire day on the floor of my bedroom, Norton’s Anthology in one hand, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare in the other, and an encyclopedia in my lap – all to try and figure out the wonderful and unknown things she was referencing. I’m relatively certain that learned more about English lit, poetry, and drama in that one afternoon than years of college ever managed. And now I can quote "Prufrock" at the drop of a hat, which, while not a particularly useful skill, is still fun to pull out at parties.



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