Small Press Shakedown: Dominic Stevenson of Listen Softly London
Small Press Shakedown: Martin Appleby of Paper and Ink

The Face in the Frost and The Obsessed

The Face in the Frost
The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs
(1969) is an oft-overlooked fantasy classic. Two elderly wizards - Prospero and Roger Bacon - meander across the North and South Kingdoms in search of a cure for some ill-defined metaphysical curse that's plaguing the land. The evil is deliberately vague, and all the more horrifying for it: an ancient tome is being read by a dark-hearted wizard, and badness is spilling forth. From damp moths to off-putting mists to an ominous sense of malaise, Bellairs excels at conveying an implicit wrongness that is more atmosphere than overt threat.

Prospero and Roger Bacon are two of fantasy's more charming heroes. They're creaky and odd, keen on nice cheeses and old ports, opinionated as to pies and history alike. They circumvent - or outright run - from virtually every fight, and their battles with boredom, discontent and discomfort are adorably human. Most importantly, they're wonderfully human, and their bluff and bluster hides a real depth of emotion that, when it bubbles up to the surface, will bring tears to your eyes. Their spellcasting is a combination of arcane lore and improvised gibberish, and, for all its deliberate unconventionality, comes across as a surprisingly rigorous and internally consistent magic systems.

The plot itself is, I suppose, the weakest point. Not unlike The Last UnicornThe Face in the Frost isn't non-linear as much as it is ... unconcerned. Our heroes are on a journey, but every molehill is a mountain and every actual mountain is quickly glossed over so we can return to a study of molehills. The land is rife with symbolism and reference, a patchwork landscape of bizarre characters and implausible situations. The quest - and its resolution - may frustrate readers expecting something more traditionally substantial, but if there's one consistent lesson throughout The Face in the Frost, it is the importance - and beauty - of insubstantial things.

The ObsessedThe Obsessed by Gertrude Schweitzer (1950) is a tight domestic thriller. Carla is a nurse, and a damn good one. She's worked herself up from nothing to go to school, make the grades, and get a life for herself. And now, finally, she's succeeded - and caught the eye (and ring!) of one of the hospital's top surgeons, Mike. They're in love, they're amazing, they're keen to be married, except...

Carla grew up as the maid in a wealthy woman's house. Initially, she was the friend of the daughters - Peris and Enid. But time proved otherwise. She would never, ever be one of them: never accepted, never welcome. Their classism, and Carla's reaction, is what drove her to make her new life. 

And now Peris needs her: she's exhausted after a failed marriage, and needs her childhood maid to see her through this dark time. Carla resents the call, but knows this is a chance to bury her past, and demonstrate what she has become. But when Peris meets Mike, things go awry. Peris is beautiful, delicate, romantic and perfect - she shares Mike's background and upbringing, and, is impossible to resist.

The story is told largely from Mike's point of view, although, unusually for a period thriller, it isn't about him at all. However, Mike's presented not just as the object of the story - the prize for the two competing women - but also a middle-ground. Like Peris, he's from a life of privilege and wealth, with the expectations and self-righteousness that entails. But like Carla, he's active, not passive - he's gone out of his way to prove himself as more than his family, and to carve out the life he wants to lead. Were the book handled more clumsily, this would be all about Mike's decision -

...but it isn't. Although Mike certainly believes in his free will, he's the object (probably, as rich white male doctor in 1950, for the first time - in life or literature). Carla and Peris are the actors here, choosing who they want, why they want, and what they'll do to achieve it. Schweitzer does an impressive job of keeping the two sides 'even' - both morally and in 'Mike-points'. There's cleverly-placed ambiguity throughout, leaving the reader to guess which woman is or isn't 'good', and I was left guessing until the end as to how it would resolve. (Spoiler: the back cover of my edition is fair and balanced, while the shoutline on the front cover gives away who is the baddie. That's annoying, and I'm glad I didn't clock it until I was done reading. Thus I've thoughtfully blanked it out on the otherwise lovely cover image, right.)