A lot of young adult books focus on a canny thirteen year old – someone wise, sensitive, and naive coming to terms with the illogical and intense world of adults. As parent to a 13 year old, I understand exactly what the appeal is. It’s a powerful age, with one foot in the world of childhood and one in the world of adults. Sophistication and innocence sit side by side in tenuous balance. Zafon’s hero Max Carver fits the bill perfectly. He’s thoughtful, intelligent, careful, and unsettled. It is June 1943 and Max’s watchmaker father moves the family away from their city home to a beach house on the coast to escape the war. Though Max has been expecting it, the news is shattering, unearthing his sense of security.
Things only get worse when Max’s sister Irina picks up a stray black cat, the station clock in their new town starts ticking backwards, they move into a house riddled with past tragedies, and a garden full of strange statues around a terrifying clown appears to move. Although The Prince of Mist predates Zafon’s two bestselling novels The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, it is full of the same intensity – the co-mingling of realism, magic, and terror. The story is compelling from the start, propelled by the mystery of a boy that Max meets in his new town, and a series of hints that build to produce a frightening and satisfying thriller that goes well beyond the plotline.
There are few things scarier than an evil clown, but coupled with a broken promise, a lost child, black and white film reels, a shipwreck, bad dreams, and a series of slightly Satanic symbols, the story takes on a serious resonance. As with the later books, the writing is rich, full of atmospheric descriptions that evoke the setting and create a mood:
“The southern beach, on the other side of the town, was shaped like a vast crescent moon. Beyond the strip of white sand the shoreline was covered with shiny pebbles smoothed by the sea. Behind the beach, rising almost vertically, loomed a wall of craggy cliffs, on top of which stood the lighthouse, dark and solitary.” (58)
The book ends rather too lightly after the intensity that precedes it, leaving the reader feeling a bit cheated. It’s almost, though not quite, a happy ending, which doesn’t fit the darkness of the book, but that’s a minor flaw in a book so beautifully written and with so many poetic details that go well beyond the engaging plot. Max’s first glimpse of the ocean, for example:
“Max found himself gazing at an endless expanse of ethereal light, the electric blue of the sea shimmering beneath the midday sun, imprinting itself on his retina like a supernational apparition. The ashen light that perpetually drowned the old city already seemed like a distant memory. He felt as if he had spent his entire life looking at the world through a black and white lens and suddenly it sprung into life, in full, luminous colour he could almost touch.” (7)
Other characters like Max’s quirky inventor father, his lovelorn older sister, or Roland’s grandfather Victor Kray are well drawn, leaving the reader wanting far more. The Prince of Mist is a fast-paced book that can be read in a few hours, but which will stay with the reader far longer. Younger readers might be disturbed by the evil clown or the ultimate denouement. Older readers and adults will, however, enjoy every moment of this heady, complex story that combines gothic horror with detective mystery, psychological complexity, a touch of romance, and deep linguistic richness.
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