BOOK REVIEW - The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs
Posted by Nathan Major on Thursday, May 20, 2010 at 8:25 PM
By John Bellairs (Official Webpage)
Buy the book here: The Face in the Frost
It is difficult for me to review The Face in the Frost. The reason being that, for me, this book was what defined fantasy for me, and was the book that really got me into the fantasy genre. I'd certainly dabbled with fantasy before, mostly with children's books, specifically the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. However, The Face in the Frost was the first adult fantasy book I ever read, and after enjoying it, I later moved on to more fantasy, including Tolkien's The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I use the term "read" loosely as I actually didn't physically read the book until about six or seven years ago. I actually first experienced The Face in the Frost on an unabridged audiobook put out by Recorded Books (probably one of the finest audiobook companies I've used). The book was (erroneously) shelved in the children's audio books, and the cover had a picture of a wizard on it. This interested me (as did the fact it was only four cassettes), so I checked it out, and listened to the entire four-five hour recording in a single night.
The reason why it was so hard to find a hard copy of the novel was the fact that it was written in the 1970s, and was taken out of print shortly after. The novel was recently re-published with a new cover in 2006, though it seems to have gone out of print again, making copies hard to come by. Bellairs actually isn't well known for his fantasy; he was primarily a children's horror writer (which is probably why they filed the audiobook in the children's section). With all due respect to Dan Wells, I must confess I have found Bellairs to be one of the finest writers of horror for young people I've ever read. His books were creepy and terrifying, while never resorting to nearly any form of violence or bloodshed.
But I digress; this isn't a review of his other books, it is a review of The Face in the Frost. The novel centers around two wizards, aptly named Prospero and Roger Bacon (it even says in the first sentence, "and not the one you're thinking of, either."). Both are older, and not very good wizards, a fact they are fully aware of. To quote the book,
"Though they couldn't make the moon eclipse, they could do some very striking lightning effects and make it look as though it might rain if you waited long enough." (1)
The two are old friends, and after Prospero's house is attacked by unknown objects, they embark on an adventure to stop a power, one they know full well they cannot possibly counter. Despite this, still they go, meeting the most oddball of people and encountering experiences that are genuinely terrifying, all the way down to the final showdown.
What makes this book a true gem among fantasy, is the fact that Bellairs is such a vivid writer. Every word he puts to paper seems to have a place, and his descriptions create a world that is believable and authentic, even if the underlying details maybe vague. While Prospero, Roger Bacon, and even the main antagonist's magic is never fully explained (if at all), we still have a clear understanding of the rules they are bound by, and how the world works. For example, in one of my favorite parts of the book, the pair meet an old friend: a king who lives alone in a tall tower. The king, named Gorm, is "a magician, but an introspective one, a model-railroad hobbyiest." This is evident by the fact that all of Gorm's magic is used to create a living, breathing galaxy in his tower, one he plays and tinkers with all day long. Clever little things like this really make the book shine, and it is full of more memorable moments in just a few chapters than few book series can even dream of accomplishing.
As an example, here is a quote describing Prospero's "improbable" home:
"Inside the house were such things as trouble antique dealers' dreams: a brass St. Bernard with a clock in its side and a red tongue that went in and out with the ticks as the tail wagged; a five-foot iron statue of a tastefully draped lady playing a violin (the statue was labeled "Inspiration");...a cherrywood bedstead with a bassoon carved into one of the fat headposts, so that it could be played as you lay in bed and meditated; and much more junk; and deep closets crammed with things that frightened the wits out of the wizard [Prospero] as he poked around looking for jars of mandrake root or dwarf hair in aspic. ... On a shelf over the experiment table was the inevitable skull, which the wizard put there to remind him of death, though it usually reminded him that he needed to go to the dentist." (6)
To put it simply: this book is just plain fun, but with a few asides. Much of the humor is derived from the oddball descriptions of the world, but the banter between Prospero and Roger Bacon is equally amusing and charming in nearly every instance. On top of this, there are several genuinely terrifying scenes, where the book does an amazing job balancing humor, horror, and general fantasy into a perfect blend. Bellair's prose shines through always; while he might not have the largest vocabulary, he is so incredibly clever with his word choices it hard to fault him on any sentence in the novel.
Perhaps the only problem I found with the book is the ending. I have mentioned before that I consider the endings to be one of the most, if not the most important part of a book, and unfortunately The Face in the Frost's ending is a bit too "deus ex machina" for my tastes. The scenes leading up to and encompassing the climax of the book are well written and quite terrifying, but the way the final conflict is resolved will certainly leave some readers with both feelings of bewilderment and the notion they've been cheated out of a better ending.
Despite that flaw, I openly recommend this book to anyone who both wishes to write fantasy, read fantasy, or just generally likes a clever read that is too much fun to pass up. The Face in the Frost is perhaps my most favorite work of fiction, and considering the novel is quite short, could probably be read in just a few hours. Highly recommended.
Note: As mentioned before, the book appears to be out of print again. However, from the link above you can purchase the hardcover from Amazon sellers, but if you have a Kindle there's a better option: a cheap Kindle version of the book is also available.