Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bibliophile's Angst- Lending a Cherished Book

I have a friend and co-worker who is such a bibliophile that she'd probably bleed ink were she cut. In one of our conversations, which invariably lead to the subject of books, I mentioned John Bellairs and she said she was a big fan. I then told her that an omnibus edition had been published of Bellairs' fiction for adults, and that it included an unfinished draft of a sequel to The Face in the Frost, the existence of which she was unaware. Well, now I've gone and done it... I feel compelled to lend her my copy of Magic Mirrors. Hey, I know where she works, so the odds that she'll scarper off with it are pretty slim. Now I guess I have to put up a review for the unfinished sequel, the title of which is The Dolphin Cross.

The Face in the Frost is, at its core, the story of an investigation- the protagonists, Prospero and Roger Bacon, become aware of a threat to their (particularly Prospero's) continued well-being, and seek to determine the nature of the threat. Throughout the course of the narrative, they are unsure of the nature of the threat, though they journey on to its potential source in a desperate attempt to counter it.

The Dolphin Cross takes place a few months after the end of The Face in the Frost, after Prospero and Roger Bacon (with some unlooked-for help) have thwarted the evil machinations against them (the nature of the threat is never made explicit). While working outside his improbable house (a line from The Face in the Frost comes to mind- "I do not think, Prospero," he said, "that one should attribute a very high degree of reality to your house."), Prospero becomes aware of the movements of armies throughout the kingdom in which he lives, and he is eventually attacked by a mysterious knight of a singular nature. While catching up with news of local happenings at a nearby tavern, he is separated from his all-important wizard's staff. Thus handicapped, he is unable to fend off another attack and is exiled (like the Prospero you are thinking of) to a remote island. Much of the manuscript is a prison narrative, with Prospero alternately killing time, and devising a means to escape from his captivity. All the while, his sympathetic but unrelenting jailer lets fall snippets of information regarding a new claimant to the throne of the disunited kingdom who seems to wish to bring all of the petty fiefdoms under his rule. Bellairs' description of the disposition of Prospero's country is an inspired bit of lunacy:

The South Kingdom, where Prospero lived, was an insane mélange of tiny princedoms, dukedoms, free cities, fiefs, independent farms, and toll-free bishoprics. The only extant map of the whole domain was done by Abraham Ortelius, cartographer to King Gorm the Wonderworker, the ruler of one of these miniature principalities. The "Measles Map", as it was called in the rather small intellectual community of the South, looked like a picture of something in the last stages of a malignant and disfiguring disease. Blotches of purple rot crept across streams and fields. Pimples and boils popped up everywhere in realistic colors, for when Ortelius had to depict, say, a kingdom within a dukedom within a princedom, he always used pink for the outer ring, red for the next, and bright pustular yellow for the pimple's head. The largest of these nations was about the size of Connecticut, while the smallest was only half an acre. It was called Bedd, and whenever Prospero looked at the map- there was a copy tacked up in his living room- he imagined the crabby old Bishop of Bedd peering over the top of his brass fourposter, threatening all comers to try and do him out of his rightful fief. Or frightful reef. Or something. You couldn't look at the Measles Map for very long without getting the giggles.

So, for much of the narrative, our protagonist sits in lonely exile on a tiny, remote island, until he is able to escape with the aid of a magical MacGuffin which he finds when he makes a thorough search of his environs. Meanwhile, there is a brief interlude in which Roger Bacon discovers that his friend is in danger through the agency of a magic alarm bottle, and departs from his abbey in Scotland. The plot resumes with Prospero safely ashore, where he poses as an itinerant leech-gatherer until he gives his wizardly avocation away by using a trick to cheat at a game, thereby gaining the attention of an angry mob. Escaping the mob, he makes his way to a nearby island where he falls into the clutches of one of Bellairs' most memorable villains, a malignant wizard who calls himself "The Bishop". The scene in which Prospero dines with The Bishop is like a creepy spin on a scene in a "James Bond" movie, in which the spy dines with the supercriminal... the description of the table setting allows Bellairs to indulge in some of his signature creepiness:

What else was there? Hmm. Well, over there was a covered dish of some kind. It was shaped like a duck, with overlapping layers of copper feathers and an ivory bill. One leg was missing. Prospero stared at the thing. For an object that was obviously artificial, it had a very lifelike air. He wondered why. Maybe it was the way the glass eyes caught the firelight. Prospero looked around some more. Near him, behind a small covered dish, stood a sugar bowl shaped like a badger- a badger with the top of his skull cut away. Prospero winced. He had an owl-shaped cookie jar at home, and the head was removable. But he never felt that he was beheading the owl when he reached in to get a cookie. These dishes were obviously made of china, porcelain, and metal, but they all seemed real. And the things they were shaped like were maimed, twisted, mutilated. Prospero felt that he was staring at the display case of a sadistic taxidermist.

The fragment ends with Prospero's escape from The Bishop, and Prospero's parting view of the Bishop's home is another of Bellairs' architectural flights of fancy:

The castle was something to stare at. It looked like what Buckingham Palace might look like if it ever went on a two-week drunk. Essentially, it was a big stone strongbox covered with cornices and pediments and balustrades and balls and vases. But instead of being all triangles and rectangles and squares, as such places usually are, it was droopy crescents and parallelograms and lurching unidentifable shapes. Every angle was out of kilter. Here and there, in niches and in split pediments, Prospero saw busts, and even at this distance he could tell that they were meant to be busts of the Bishop. But some were covered with spider webs and some dripped moss; one was only a half-face split down the middle. The whole building seemed to be afflicted with some horrible stone disease, so that the gray surface was covered with blisters and blotches. A low dome of green copper sprawled across the roof of the building, and from the center of the dome a column of black smoke rose.

The Dolphin Cross went unfinished due to Bellairs' concentration on writing successful children's thrillers (his young adult fiction career began with The House with a Clock in its Walls). The published draft of this, the first third of the book, is a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been. While it's not the equal of The Face in the Frost (it's a draft, so it's not very polished), it does feature Bellairs' trademark blend of humor and horror, though the horror is not quite as unsettling as that in "TFitF". The dangers presented in the plot are more concrete, less existential. There is, though, one moment in which I had to pause in my reading to howl "NOOOO!!!", an experience which most Bellairs fans would no doubt share, especially since the book is unfinished, so the actuality of the plot hook remains up in the air.

Now, here I am, looking at my cherished copy of Magic Mirrors, questioning the wisdom of letting it out of my sight for an instant. I know I can trust my friend, like I said, I know where she works. Yeah, I have to lend it out... I know the exact moment when she'll pause in her reading and howl "NOOOO!!!"


Jennifer said...

If she's such a bibliophile, she'll take care of it and return it... I hope.

I still long for long, lost/lent out books.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

You're a good soul, BBBB.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

And an exemplary melon.

Laura said...

Hmmm, I hate lending books out too. Mostly because I make bad choices and give them to evil people. :(

I've got a stabbing pain in one eye and Mass is playing a kazoo right beside me (the two are related, yes) I cannot properly read this post-I just skimmed.
I'll be back to re-read though as I am looking for some good books to get into. :)


bbkf said...

ha...just be like my mom and inscribe your name in gigantic, loopy letters not only inside the front cover, but underneath the very last line of the, on second thought, don't do that...that just smacks you right back in to reality and is most disconcerting...but, yes lending books is always fraught with the possibility of not getting them back...remember, if you really love this book, you'll set it free...and if it was meant to be, it will come back to you...