The Face in the Frost (Appendix N Review)

The Face in the Frost

The Face in the Frost
by John Bellairs
Originally published by Macmillan (1969)
Republished by Open Road Media (2014)
$6.15 (Kindle)
$9.99 (Paperback)

The wizard Prospero goes on a journey alongside his friend Roger Bacon. While on this journey, Roger Bacon is killed, and Prospero goes through the South Kingdom, looking for a way to bring him back to life.

Welcome to the disaster area known as The Face in the Frost.

From Chapter 1, it was clear that this book would be a dreadful bore. It spends pages upon pages describing Prospero’s messy house and odd contraptions without a hint of urgency. No threat menaces him and no great crisis calls for his magical expertise. The “adventure” (I use this word very charitably) is utterly without a point. Even when Roger Bacon is executed, it is handled in such a drab, dry way that it came off more like a minor inconvenience that the death of his best friend. The journey itself plods along without purpose; it is just one event after another, with nothing connecting them and absolutely no engaging characterization. It is difficult to care about a plot that doesn’t exist, and the book’s attempts at humor did not help things at all. Reading this book is more torture than enjoyment.

It’s not even “so bad it’s good,” it’s just awful from top to bottom. It does not get interesting later, it is incoherent, it has as much emotion and passion as a broken computer, and dramatic tension does not exist within its pages. There are far better books to read than this insomnia medication, but if you want to waste your money, buy it here.

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14 Responses to The Face in the Frost (Appendix N Review)

  1. Jesse Lucas says:

    It must have been a shock to dive into this right after Poul Anderson. It’s a short book like his books but it’s nothing like them, kind of on an opposite pole of some Appendix N spectrum we could come up with. I’d compare it more with Wizard of Earthsea than with anything else on that list, and the books have a lot of similarities, especially the wonder and inherent danger of magic, so far from the modern rules-based fantasy it’s like a different genre entirely.

    I’d argue, first, that there’s nothing wrong with boring books. I, personally, was not bored by it, but I recognize that it is not fast-paced. It’s at the kind of pace that an elderly person that thinks they’ve discovered the secrets of the universe might take, actually. It’s a story about brotherhood, how it goes wrong and how it goes right, and even demonstrates C.S. Lewis’ eucatastrophe in that field, but more than that it’s about how even when you think you know everything you don’t, about how adults stop being afraid of the dark and why maybe they shouldn’t.

    I’m surprised you summarized it with the death of Roger Bacon. That was a relatively minor incident, just something spooky that Melichus does to them, and I’d argue that the core of the book is Melichus being spooky. It’s a cozy, comfy horror story. Very strange combination. These wizards can perform all sorts of marvels, their imagination is the only limit, and that can lead to good and evil. But mostly evil; none of their charms really counteract the evil Melichus’ enchantments wreak, and Melichus couldn’t have done any of it without Prospero’s help. There’s a lot of analysis one can do here, and I read the book last year, but I just wanted to step in to its defense.

    I’d also like to raise a voice in defense of insomnia aids. Some of us have trouble sleeping. One of my very favorite stories in any medium is the anime Aria, about girl training to be a gondolier in a recreated Venice on a future Mars. She doesn’t save the world, she doesn’t uncover a conspiracy or save a friend from suicide or, really, do anything aside from grow up and learn about the city. There does not seem to be anything evil in the city at all. One reviewer mocked it by saying it might have well just be called “heaven;” a lot of potential fans were bored to tears and switched to something exciting. But I found that once I slowed my pace to match it, there was a beautiful story; there was no evil, but there was definitely conflict, and it all served to make the various characters stronger. I realized that that story could easily be taking place in a world enjoying Millennial rest. It could be a heaven. And I loved being there.

    So my point is Face in the Frost is what it is, and there’s a lot of value in what it is. I hope I got my point across, sorry if I was brash.

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      It must have been a shock to dive into this right after Poul Anderson. It’s a short book like his books but it’s nothing like them, kind of on an opposite pole of some Appendix N spectrum we could come up with. I’d compare it more with Wizard of Earthsea than with anything else on that list, and the books have a lot of similarities, especially the wonder and inherent danger of magic, so far from the modern rules-based fantasy it’s like a different genre entirely.

      Oh, it was a shock. I didn’t expect “modern rules-based fantasy,” but I did expect some sort of drama, and without any real stakes, I came away disappointed.

      I, personally, was not bored by it, but I recognize that it is not fast-paced. It’s at the kind of pace that an elderly person that thinks they’ve discovered the secrets of the universe might take, actually.

      I guess books of this nature just don’t appeal to me. It felt like school reading in some places.

      One of my very favorite stories in any medium is the anime Aria, about girl training to be a gondolier in a recreated Venice on a future Mars. She doesn’t save the world, she doesn’t uncover a conspiracy or save a friend from suicide or, really, do anything aside from grow up and learn about the city. There does not seem to be anything evil in the city at all.

      I had heard of Aria and its famous premise; however, the “iyashikei” genre of soothing, calming anime doesn’t appeal to me at all. I certainly don’t like it in book form.

      I hope I got my point across, sorry if I was brash.

      You got your point across — and don’t worry about being brash; it’s all good. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

      • Jesse Lucas says:

        Melichus was going to take the paperweight he made with Prospero and send the kingdoms into everlasting winter. The only one who could stop him was Prospero, who knew he might have to give his life to stop it. That’s stakes.

  2. My first thought upon reading this review was to wonder if there were perhaps two books with the same name and that you and I had read different ones. But upon reflection I realized that it was more likely that we had read the same book, but with different expectations.

    I’ll be honest, this is one of my favorite novels. I read it as a child, and I have continued to reread it over the years. I have at least two different paperback copies on my shelf and one on my Kindle now.

    However, I can see, now that you point it out, that someone going into this book expecting a fast paced adventure fantasy with epic battles and dragons would be disappointed.

    “The Face In The Frost” is a horror novel that is set in a loose historical fantasy world and features a spellcaster as the protagonist. It is brooding and atmospheric, relying on a slowly building sense of menace rather than jump scares and gore. As such, I suppose it’s not for everyone.

    Horror/fantasy is not a common hybrid these days, but Clive Barker and Neal Gaiman both work in that overlap, and Ray Bradbury was a master of it. I would wholeheartedly recommend “The Face In The Frost” to readers who enjoyed works like “The Thief Of Always” or “The Halloween Tree” or China Mieville’s “King Rat”.

    Someone looking for a Dragonlance-style fantasy adventure would be better off looking elsewhere, however.

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      My first thought upon reading this review was to wonder if there were perhaps two books with the same name and that you and I had read different ones. But upon reflection I realized that it was more likely that we had read the same book, but with different expectations.

      You’re probably right. I do have a bias toward dramatic adventures, but even on its own terms, I did not find the story to be very interesting at all.

      “The Face In The Frost” is a horror novel that is set in a loose historical fantasy world and features a spellcaster as the protagonist. It is brooding and atmospheric, relying on a slowly building sense of menace rather than jump scares and gore. As such, I suppose it’s not for everyone.

      That’s the thing; it didn’t even feel scary. It just felt boring. There was nothing memorable or engaging in the narrative.

      But thanks for dropping by anyway. You’re always welcome to comment here, even if you disagree with me vehemently.

  3. Jesse Lucas says:

    I would also compare it, on mood alone, with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time. They just… felt the same? I can’t describe it.

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      I would also compare it, on mood alone, with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time. They just… felt the same? I can’t describe it.

      I understand. If A Wrinkle in Time is like The Face in the Frost, I have no intention of reading it, as it just wouldn’t excite me in the least.

    • PCBushi says:

      Based on that comparison, I might give this one a read sometime. A Wrinkle In Time wasn’t very adrenaline-pumping or fast-paced, but it does have that feeling of menace, as Misha put it. ‘Something wicked this way comes’ sort of thing. It definitely is a subtler kind of fantasy that you have to temper your expectations for.

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