Shortcut #55: The Prince of Mist

Having gone to my recently most-favorite bookstore Murder By The Book (and quite possibly the first favorite bookstore I’ve ever favorited) in order to find books that were recommended to me somewhere by someone, I found this book instead.  This book being The Prince of Mist.

(The other books, for your edification, were Elizabeth Hand’s Winterlong and Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Angel’s Game.  They came to my attention because I was and still am trying to educate myself on current science-fiction and fantasy that I might like, since most of my reading past has circled around that golden age between the 1950s and the 1970s.  Currently contemporary faves include everybody’s favorite China Miéville and one who should be everybody’s favorite, Steven Brust.)

Murder By The Book is a mystery-centric bookstore, as you might have deduced from its name.  But it also harbors other books, specifically a pretty-wide ranging young adult section.  It’s also home to a cadre of well-read employees who are eager to give recommendations, and so when I went looking for The Angel’s Game (and, admittedly, bought it) the woman ringing me up asked me if I’d read The Prince of Mist.  And when given recommendations by a Profession of the Book, I find it hard to refuse.

Shortcut #55: Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Prince of Mist

I really had no expectations upon opening this book.  I knew nothing at the time about how Zafón is an international sensation, a best-seller, a man, according to USA TODAY, whose “visionary storytelling prowess is a genre unto itself.”   And maybe that’s a good thing.

What I mean is, it was nice to enter a writer’s world with no preconceived notions about who they are or how they write or what they typically write about.  Other than knowing (or, really, assuming) that Zafón was a foreign writer, I knew nothing about him.  My assumption on this latter part was so complete that I assumed the setting for The Prince of Mist was coastal Spain.  In the reader’s guide at the end of the book Zafón says that, in his mind, the story took place in England.  So, my bad, and you know what assuming does, right?  It makes an ass out of you and Ming.

Sorry, Ming.

I had no expectations, but they quickly grew just from the first chapter.  Zafón is really good at making a world palpable, even if that world is sketched out in only the barest of tones.  The first starts us off in the Big City which is more of an idea than a place.  What is real in this chapter is Max’s family (he’s the main character, by the way) and there sense of loss and bewilderment at being uprooted from their home.  See, the family patriarch (the book takes place in 1943, when patriarchs were still at large) has sprung this move all of a sudden, telling the family that tomorrow (yes, that tomorrow) they are moving.  And so they do.

The big city exists in a whirl of smog and alley and is only ever called back as a phantom.  The town they move to is a Small Coastal Town that would be perfectly fit for a postcard: the tropetastic perfect idyll.  However, from the very moment Max and his family set foot from the train, they (more specifically, he) (and we) realize all is not as it seems.  For one, the station clock is running backwards.

Okay, so there’s a mystery in this town, and it has to do with the Prince of Mist, a figure that seems to bear some spiritual resemblance to Stephen King’s It.  Really, it would be hard to have a clown villain without such a comparison.   And to solve this mystery we have three friends: Max, his older sister, Alicia, and the older than both of them Roland.  And I want to say this now, before I get into the nitty gritty: I enjoyed this book.  And I think you will, too.  You know who you are, so don’t try to deny it.

And yet some things to consider:

1. The novel is really short.  It’s 214 pages, but the font is large and spacing between the sentences is wide and I know this is a book written for a young audience, but it seems written for a younger audience than I was expecting.  It was marketed to me as a Young Adult novel, but I’d say it’s on the lower end of the age bracket.

2. Being on the lower end of the age bracket has no effect on the quality of the writing, but it does on the complexity.  It reminded me of reading The Maze Runner (in a bad way) or Behemoth (in a good way) in that the sentences aren’t complex, but straightforward.  There is no wastage of words in this book – every sentence is focused towards moving the novel forward thematically or emotionally or narratively.  Which is not a bad thing, really, but one of the reasons I love novels is that they have so much space in them, and this space allows for digressions and flights of fancy and whathaveyous until the cows come home, go out again, again and again until you wonder if there’s a single nightclub in town they haven’t visited.

(3. On a note related to the writing complexity and not the cows, I started reading Zafón’s The Angel’s Game the other day and found myself instantly lost in his delicious prose.  So the lack of verbal complexity in The Prince of Mist was a product of his goal, not a fixed trait.  For which I am glad.  Since he also states that he writes novels for all ages to enjoy, not just targeted to a specific age group, I see The Prince of Mist as being more of a parable, which goes along with it existing in a nameless town in a nameless country.)

4. The Prince of Mist was Zafón’s first published novel, and I wonder if what I’m about to say is a result of that, or a normal facet of his writing.  Namely, very little is explained in the novel about the main threat and/or the mystery and/or anything except the relationships between the three main characters.  A lot of answers are hinted at, but mostly those hints just claim that there are, indeed, answers.  What exactly are the statues?  How was Roland’s grandfather planning on fighting the Prince of Mist?  What purpose did the cat serve?  Why was Max’s younger sister targeted by the Prince of Mist?  Why does time seem of especial interest to the eponymous villain?  All these questions and more will never be answered.

5. BY THE WAY, THIS POINT CONTAINS A SPOILER! Perhaps the thing that struck me most about this book was how the whole mystery was resolved.  In fact, given all the struggle the main characters have gone through to investigate and understand the history and the mystery behind the Prince of Mist, the result of all their actions are decidedly non-Western: Namely, the Prince of Mist wins and Roland dies and the age-old debt that Roland’s father incurred is paid, and the Prince of Mist continues on in the world to seduce and terrorize other unsuspecting folks.  And Max and Alicia have to live with their failure, and their survivor’s guilt. Whee.

6. Since I’m in writing YA novels myself, and am also interested in playing with the normal conventions of the genre, it’s exciting to read a popular author who has so successfully turned the conventions towards his own ends, or ignored them altogether.  Granted, the novel was published originally in 1993 (though just in English in 2010) so conventions, perhaps, weren’t as codified then.

7. Just my luck.

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