Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Over the Abbey Wall I: Review of The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs

Grade B+

The Face in the Frost is a book that's been on the to-read list for ten years or so, a much-loved work among various communities of sf nerds. Every time I went to the crappy local used book stores, it was (alphabetically certainly) near the beginning of the typically futile search. The series of strictly young adult books with which Bellairs followed this one pollute the Barnes and Noble shelves of course, but Face is a little deeper in tone, on the cusp of young vs. merely adult, and I never found it in the major chains next to the others (although, I just discovered, it was reprinted in 2000).

The Face in the Frost was written in 1969, inspired, by the author's admission, during the mania over Lord of the Rings, but even though it contains wizards, I think that one reason it's acclaimed is that it (thankfully) reads nothing like old man Tolkien, but rather feels like it's its own animal, drawing magic more from the hidden cloisters of the academy than it does from the forgotten spirits of the earth. Instead of pairing it with the YA stuff I'm reading to my kids, it will be against other amiable dramas featuring other such monkish eccentrics.

Our own two oddballs, the sorcerers Prospero (not the one you're thinking of) and Roger Bacon (the one you probably are), are faced with an external sense of dread: some ghostly presence is trying to influence itself on the fictional North and South kingdoms and possibly the rest of Europe, and it's got an eye out for Prospero particularly. The two wizards tramp through a sometimes ghostly landscape of growing fear and suspicion trying to find its source.

There are horrors in this novel, but they are of the more suspenseful and cerebral sort, scary because the well-adjusted (and well-described) characters find them so. There are ghosts, there are trolls, there are phantom villages. Bellairs does a good job of finding the spaces in the mundane into which spectral terrors can fit, which makes them, in spots, actually unnerving. As a balance for this, Prospero and Bacon are such likable, sincere, and genial sorts, never far from a pipe or a pint, ready to expound with humor and pointless erudition, that the reader never really doubts a favorable resolution. The tone is cheerful and unapologetically anachronistic, and if the book is a little episodic, the plot a little ad hoc, it's mostly forgiven.

It's a book for those cluttered sorts of bibliophiles and collectors too. Every likable character has a house full of knicknacks and books, neglected by its owner and lovingly described. If there's a flaw in any of the primary characters (including the villain), it's the tendency to pursue knowledge for its own sake and damn the consequences. Bellairs' qualification to that is probably what got him in the YA ghetto market from there on out: a good heart can be trusted.

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