Book Review: The Face in the Frost (Updated)

A Marilyn Fitschen illustration of Prospero from the Ace paperback edition

A Marilyn Fitschen illustration of Prospero from the Ace paperback edition

The Face in the Frost, John Bellairs
ISBN 158754105X (2000)

Magic Mirrors, John Bellairs (Edited by Ann Broomhead and Timothy Szczesuil)
NESFA Press, iSBN 978-1-886778-67-2 (12009)

This is fantasy reduced to its purest form. From a laugh out loud first few pages you are plunged into nightmare and horror through to a purely satisfying ending. In decades of reading fantasy, WC knows of no story that better illustrates the form. Something different than Tolkien’s idealized fairy-tale, and something better than mere horror, this is simply a superb book.

Prospero – and not the one you are thinking of, either – and Roger Bacon must solve the riddle of an unreadable book before that riddle and a more powerful wizard kills them. The threat is all the more real because neither you nor the characters understand it; we understand and experience the fearsome side effects well enough. But Bellairs lets you guess what might happen unless Prospero and Bacon act. Nameless horrors can be the most frightening of all.

Bellairs died far too young, leaving only a handful of children’s books, outlines for a few more and this tale. We can only wish there were more.

Originally published in paperback by Ace in 1969, that early edition was brilliantly illustrated by Marilyn Fitschen. Her perfectly apt, child-like illustrations didn’t make it to the new hardbound edition, so you miss the macabre heraldic device of Melichus, and the spooky illustrations of Bellairs’ scenes. It’s a loss only partially made up for by the fine Anton Pieck cover drawing, completely appropriate to the story’s secret. The paperback was printed, unhappily, on typical Ace cheap paper, and is now browned and brittle. Finding it isn’t easy and may no longer be worth the effort. WC’s copy is not for sale.

WC re-blogs this early 2009 post because Bellairs had started writing a sequel the Face, to be called “The Dolphin Cross.” He wrote about a third of it, set it aside to write his more profitable children’s books, and died before he could take it up again. But NESFA Press has published a facsimile copy of Face (completed with the Fitschen illustrations) as well as the incomplete manuscript of Dolphin, along with a few other short pieces, in “Magic Mirrors.” Whether you are a fan of fantasy or just good writing, it’s worth your time to track it down.

Bellairs fan have a nice website, worth a visit.

It is wonderful to have the illustrated The Face in the Frost back in print. This should be on your short list of the best fantasy stories written. It’s a story you will read again and again. Although perhaps not at night. Highly recommended; simply superb.