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Wednesday, 17 November 2010 20:33

Zafón back… but not, this time, in Barcelona

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For millions of readers, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind proved to be one of the most captivating novels of the last decade. Zafon’s talent for combining fantasy, suspense and realism produced unforgettable scenes that linger in the memory. As a result, Zafon’s name immediately conjures up the dark streets of Barcelona and the Museum of Forgotten Books. Zafon’s next book, The Angel Game, took place in the same environs. For that reason, The Prince of Mist is a bit of shock. We are no longer in Barcelona.

Zafon has has shifted to a different setting: a small coastal village with a mysterious beach house and a family that has abandoned their home in the “capital city,” because of the threat posed by an invading army, The reader may surmise that WWII is raging somewhere in the background, but its reality is not a major concern for Maximilian Carver (a watchmaker), his wife Andrea, and his three children: Alicia, 15, Max Jr., 13, and Irina, 8. Within hours of arriving in their new home, the entire family is drawn into a world of intrigue and mystery.

Most of The Prince of Mist is viewed through the eyes of Max Jr., who eagerly explores his new world and listens to his father’s tale about Dr. Richard Fleichmann, the man who built the beach house. When Fleichmann’s son, Jacob, had drowned in the sea near to the beach house, the father became despondent and died soon afterwards. For many years, the house remained unoccupied ... until Maximilian Carver bought it. Max Jr. soon discovers that there is something dark and troublesome about the house, the garden and the bay (which he discovers contains the remains of a sunken ship).

Eventually, Max visits a nearby lighthouse and meets the lighthouse keeper, Victor Cray and his son, Roland. At this point, a remarkably elaborate tale of love, betrayal and supernatural evil begins to unfold. In addition, it becomes increasingly evident that the Carver family has ceased to be innocent observers. They have attracted the interest of the Prince of Mist, a specter that sometimes materializes in the beach house, the garden and ... the sunken ship in the bay.

The Prince of Mist has an awesome diversity of seemingly unrelated factors that gradually converge to create a multi-faceted picture of evil. The walled garden near the house appears to be filled with bizarre statues — figures that resemble circus performers. Victor Cray tells Max Jr. an eerie tale of the sunken ship that crashes on the rocks some 20 years ago. The drowned victims included a troupe of circus performers. Eventually, Max learns that the only survivor was Victor Cray, a man who has devoted his life to building the lighthouse from which he could keep watch over the sunken vessel. Max Jr. becomes aware of an enigmatic image — a six-pointed star in a circle that seems to be everywhere. This symbol is associated with the Prince of Mist — the evil shape-changer that ... in time will touch the lives of everyone in this tale.

The Prince of Mist preys upon individual who venture into his territory by offering to make their most treasured dreams a reality. Max Jr. learns that both Fleichmann and Victor Cray were once in love with the same woman. Fleichmann succeeded in marrying her because he struck a satanic bargain with the Prince of Mist: Fleichmann would give his first-born son to the Prince of Mist. So, it would seem then that the drowning of Jacob Fleichmann was the fulfillment of this bargain. However, The Prince of Mist is filled with convoluted events that conceal surprising revelations. Max discovers that Jacob did not drown. In fact, Jacob was saved by Victor Cray, the lighthouse keeper. Cray knows that the bargain with the Prince of Mist has not been fulfilled.

The lighthouse keeper knows that there will be a night when the Prince of Mist will return to claim his victim. When that night comes, the sunken ship will rise again under the command of the Prince of Mist. The ship will return to the harbor flying the Prince of Mist emblem – the six-pointed star in the circle. The statues in the walled garden will heed the call of their master and return to the ship. There are numerous unanswered questions: Can Max save his newfound friend, Roland (who is really Jacob)? What about the budding love affair between Max’s sister, Alicia and Roland/Jacob? Is Alicia in danger, too? And what about 8-year-old Arina, who is suffering from a concussion after falling down the steps of the beach house (after tripping over an evil cat that is probably the Prince of Mist in one of his many incarnations?

Well, enough. The Prince of Mist is packed with omens of evil and portents of good. In addition, the shape-changing demon that lurks in the darkness is constantly making cryptic statements about the nature of time, implying that he can stop it, move it forward or make it repeat itself. In fact, his powers are so prodigious no one stands a chance. Yet, in the end ...

This is a work of fantasy and it is targeted for “young adults.” That explains why many of Zafon’s literary skills are missing from The Prince of Mist. For example, the erotic details that made The Shadow of the Wind memorable are missing. So are the dark emotions that drive the men and women through Barcelona’s streets in The Angel Game. As a consequence, the characters in The Prince of Mist seem to love, hate and perform acts of great courage (defying impossible odds) for no discernible reason.

However, one admirable possibility remains. The Prince of Mist will make a great movie. It makes no difference whether the film is animated like an old Disney movie or lavishly produced like a Star Wars epic, this modest narrative will serve as a template. Perhaps, in its final incarnation it will make sense.

The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Little, Brown and Company, 2010. 200 pages

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