Our fourth nomination for “The Great Fantasy Novel” comes from Laura Resnik, author of the urban fantasy series Esther Diamond.
The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs is the first fantasy genre novel I ever read, and it has ever since been the standard against which I measure all other fantasy novels.
John Bellairs, who died in 1991, was primarily a successful YA writer, and The Face in the Frost, first published in 1969 and reprinted many times since then, was his only novel for adults. It contains the charm and sense-o’-wonder that made him such a great writer for kids, as well as an urbane wit and a chilling sense of menace and danger.
The story is about a wizard, Prospero, who lives in an absurdly eccentric household in the South Kingdom. Dark, deadly forces close in on Prospero while his friend Roger Bacon, also a sorcerer, is visiting him, and the two of them realize they’ve been targeted by Melichus, a former friend who’s now a dark wizard in the North Kingdom. Driven out of the safety of Prospero’s home, Prospero and Roger Bacon set out to confront and defeat Melichus and his evil scheme—which they soon discover is a deadly threat to many more people than just the two of them.
Bellairs’ tale remains my all-time favorite classic fantasy novel, i.e. a novel set in a make-believe world and involving wizards and magic, good and evil, and a quest to defeat a powerful nemesis. It’s also fiction for people of all ages. I was 15 years old the first time I read it and found it unputdownable. I read it for the fourth or fifth time 30 years later and still enjoyed it just as much.
The Face in the Frost had a formative influence on my ideas about fantasy storytelling in many ways. It’s both wondrous and prosaic. Prospero faces towering magical events and saves the world; but he also deals with mundane practical problems, which makes him accessible and real, despite his extraordinary skills and magical world. The book is terrifying and funny by turns, and that sort of sensibility has always attracted me as a reader and influenced me as a writer. Like all good fantasy, the story is about fundamental human issues, such as friendship, loyalty, duty, sacrifice, betrayal, greed, facing your demons, dealing with consequences, choosing your path in life, and—of course—good and evil. And, overall, The Face in the Frost has a wonderful atmosphere that makes me want to crawl inside the world of the story and live there when I’m reading it—and I consider that an essential quality of good fantasy writing: to lure the reader into your elaborate world, rather than to bludgeon the reader with your excruciatingly laborious worldbuilding.
So if you’re going to give one fantasy novel to someone who’s curious but doesn’t know where to start, or who wonders why you read this nerdy genre, or who has previously tried the genre and didn’t care for it (and so never tried it again)… The Face in the Frost is the book to give them.
Bellairs’ novel has one additional advantage: it’s short. After all, think about how a friend will react if, after they ask you what’s the one fantasy novel they should read, you hand them a treekiller? A doorstop? A book the size of my first car? Most likely, they will regret ever opening the subject and never open the book. By contrast, The Face in the Frost is short enough to read in a couple of evenings.
More information about John Bellairs and his work can be found here.
This article is part of our search for “The Great Fantasy Novel.” For more information on this project or to nominate your own favorite fantasy novel, please take a look at the introduction article. Do you agree or disagree with this nomination? Let us know in the comments below!
Laura Resnick is the author of the popular Esther Diamond urban fantasy series, whose releases include Disappearing Nightly, Doppelgangster, Unsympathetic Magic, Vamparazzi, Polterheist, and The Misfortune Cookie (November 2013). She has also written traditional fantasy novels such as In Legend Born, The Destroyer Goddess, and The White Dragon, which made multiple “Year’s Best” lists. An opinion columnist, frequent public speaker, and the Campbell Award-winning author of many short stories, she is on the web at LauraResnick.com.