Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Prospero is a magician ("not the one you think" the narrator assures us) who battles a number of phobias. At the opening of John Bellairs The Face in the Frost, he is afraid of his own basement. This is a somewhat unusual condition even for Prospero, and to be fair, Prospero's house, "a huge, doodad-coveted, trash filled, two-story horror of a house," has a basement scarier than most. Prospero can't shake the feeling that something is wrong, and that he is being watched. In this he turns out to be right. His friend and fellow magician, Roger Bacon, also plagued by feelings of unease, has, practicing a regular habit of his, sneak up on Prospero and his house to observe. Once the two wizards are together within the house and set about investigating, they discover that they are surrounded by dark and malevolent beings. They plan a wizardly escape, but not before a good night's sleep and a hearty breakfast.

The Face in the Frost, published in 1969, is considered a little known classic by many including Ursula LeGuin. Bellairs claimed the story was inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, but in both tone and subject matter the book is more closely related to a sub-genre of English fantasy that includes Joan Aiken's Armitage family stories, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, and the masterful Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. In these books, the focus is on the practice of magic, the tone wavers from light and whimsical, even farcical, to deathly serious and nightmarish, and the absolute Englishness of the characters, with their particular charms, is always central.

The Face in the Frost
is a prime example of this kind of work. Prospero, for instance, owns a magic mirror, which, while capable of extravagant looks into the future and across distant lands, has a tendency to be surly and to show only trivial subjects like American baseball games. Roger has recently been released from employment in the national defense because, while trying to conjure a brass wall to surround the country, he instead created only a glass wall, which an invading army of Vikings simply tapped with their weapons, leaving a lot of shattered glass on English beaches. At the same time, the evil the two wizards seek out is a twisted one which preys on the deepest of fears of victims. Throughout the book, the character's own shortcomings and ineptitudes serve as some of their largest barriers, but they always chin up, drolly comment on each other's work, and then find a clever way to achieve their goals.

The Face in the Frost is a wildly imaginative exploration of magic. Bellairs plays with the vast and obscure knowledge of a practicing wizard. His magicians' abilities never seem to be quite enough to keep them out of trouble. The spells and incantations of the wizards are built out of multiple languages, reference multiple mythologies, and use inventive magical and pseudo-scientific tools.

It's a tremendous task to create a world as complete as the one in The Face in the Frost and to tell its story in just over a 100 pages, but Bellairs acheives it, though not flawlessly. While the prose reaches points of near poetry in its detail, it sometimes leaves the narrative feeling a bit disjointed. Nonetheless, the story with all of its magical aura is worth a readers' extra effort.

The Face in the Frost is available at libraries, used bookstores, or as an eReader download from a number of vendors.

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