Friday, June 26, 2009

The Face in the Frost: True wizardry at work

John Bellairs' The Face in the Frost is one of those books recommended by Gary Gygax in Appendix N of the Dungeon Master's Guide ("Inspirational Reading") that I've had on my "to read" list for a long time, but never managed to track down. When I finally did score a used paperback copy it sat for months in an unread pile on my bookshelf.

I've now crossed this book off my list, and at 174 pages it flew by in a highly enjoyable and lightning-quick fashion. I would highly recommend it to anyone tired of tedious, drawn out, multi-volume fantasy. The Face in the Frost is not only remarkable due to its brevity, but also because its scope is far more (refreshingly) modest than traditional fantasy fare. There's no dashing young heroes populating the novel, no breathtaking swordplay on display, and no earth-shattering quests to complete. And that's all right. Bellairs reminds us that not all fantasy fiction needs to have its heroes save the world.

The Face in the Frost revolves around two old, earthbound, and rather unheroic wizards--Prospero and Roger Bacon--who embark on a journey to get to the bottom of a seemingly minor disturbance. An old cloak in the basement of Propero's house acts in a threatening manner and strange shapes hover in the woods at the edge of his lawn. When Bacon arrives for an evening of talk over good ale, the two old friends decide to put an end to the growing nuisance. Prospero leaves a note for his cleaning lady and the two set off the next morning through a tunnel in Prospero's basement. We quickly discover that one of Prospero's old peers from his youth--the wizard Melichus, now turned to evil and mischief--is at the root of the disturbance, and the problems take on a much more sinister air.

The Face in the Frost's finest qualities are its details. The world Bellairs creates has the feel of age. The buildings are old, moldy, and sunken; the woods are gnarled, decaying, dark, and mossy. Using sparse but vivid descriptions Bellairs gives Prospero's home and the North Kingdom and the South Kingdom into which the two wizards travel the feeling of groundedness and earthly reality. Prospero and Bacon are both likeable characters and interact with each other with dry wit and genuine friendship that is immediately endearing. In short, Bellairs builds his world and characters far more capably and believeably than many other fantasy authors I've read, and in far, far fewer words. This is no mean feat and a rather impressive piece of artistry.

The Face in the Frost is also recommended for its unique portrayal of magic. The magic here feels unique, dangerous, and unpredictable, much like first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (and unlike the boring, predictable, safe, modifier-enchancing magic that characterizes most of the spells found in later editions of the game). Spells are found in old musty tomes and require years of study to learn and master, and not even aged and proficient wizards can be sure they have selected the right spell for every occasion. Sometimes the effects are quite unintended (and often humorous). At other times the magic is Lovecraftian and evokes twisted, otherdimensional horrors that should-not-be. It's easy to see how this book was an influence on Gygax and early D&D.

If I have any criticism of the book it's its rather abrupt dues ex machina ending (which I won't spoil here); I was hoping for more of a final confrontation than what Bellairs ultimately delivers. But overall this is a minor complaint and not enough to keep me from recommending it strongly.

(Note: A cover blurb by normally sure-handed editor Lin Carter hails the book as "One of the best fantasy novels to appear since The Lord of the Rings". Not only is this a tired comparison (must every fantasy novel compare itself to Tolkien's masterwork?) but its also misleading in that many will open the novel anticipating another LOTR or Sword of Shannara. Ultimately my fears were groundless--this book is anything but an epic quest. A much more accurate description is this glowing recommendation by Ursula LeGuin: "This is authentic fantasy by a writer who knows what wizardry is all about.")


Falze said...

Sounds awfully familiar...I wonder if I could have read it ages ago?

Pericles said...

I read this every few years and am delighted that you reviewed it. I only wish you'd mentioned the fine interior illustrations, which I think add another level of pleasure to the story.

If you wanted to introduce a non-fantasy reader to fantasy, this would be a superb choice.

Oh, and the way the artist uses color on the cover is wonderful.

Brian Murphy said...

Hey Falze, it's possible. It was published in 1969 so it's likely that it was kicking around in the middle school libraries of our youth. It's certainly gotten hard to find which is a shame.

Pericles: You're right, I should have mentioned these. It was a pleasant surprise to find them in the paperback version I own.

David J. West said...

The Lin Carter recommendation might have kept me away. I'll have to go find this at my used book store.

Brer said...

There has recently been some talk about publishing an omnibus volume of Bellairs early and more hard to get at books, like The Face In The Frost, and a fragment of a long lost sequel, The Dolphin Cross. It (the omnibus) was supposed to be called Magic Mirrors.

The cover art is, of course, by Darrell K. Sweet, who did an entire calendar of Tolkien art, some of which graced the covers of the trilogy in the '80s.

I just recently discovered your blog and have really enjoyed reading all of it; like a Hobbit, I enjoy reading stuff that I already know with few contradictions, and our tastes and opinions seem to fall eerily close!

Pericles said...

Brer, like you I just discovered this blog, and I also enjoy what our host has to say.

I also believe-and of course I could be wrong here-but I think the cover art was actually done by Carl Lundgren.

Not that there's anything wrong with the talented Mr. Sweet, whose fine paintings much resemble those of Mr. Lundgren.

Brer said...

You're quite right, Pericles; I wrote my comment on the fly and didn't stop to verify my memories. The only Tolkien art by Carl Lundgren that I'm aware of was in The 1980 J. R. R. Tolkien Calendar: The Great Illustrators Edition. It was for July and was labelled "The Defiance Of Saruman." There were several other pictures by Darrell Sweet in this calendar, and I think that's where my befuddlement arose.

Eric D. Lehman said...

Sounds like a great book. I'm going to pick up a copy now.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for stopping by, Pericles and Brer. It sounds like I've run into some rare Face in the Frost connoisseurs. I'd like to see a Bellairs volume published.