The Prince of Mist
It is wartime. Max’s family moves from the city to the seaside where they inhabit a beautiful but long abandoned house. The moment they arrive, strange things begin to occur. There is the sinister cat that meets them at the train station and won’t leave them alone. There are the odd whispering noises that only the children can hear. There is a walled garden filled with menacing circus statues and a sunken ship in the bay. It’s not long before Max learns that this was once the home of a child who drowned under mysterious circumstances. With his sister, Alicia, and Roland, a local boy, Max attempts to unravel the mystery at the risk of their own lives.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón is the author of six novels, including the international bestseller THE SHADOW OF THE WIND, a gothic mystery set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. THE PRINCE OF MIST is his first book, available for the first time in English. Though intended for younger readers with its tightly focused scope and simpler language, fans of Zafon’s other titles will notice a similarity in both theme and tone. Like his previous work, THE PRINCE OF MIST is a gothic novel with supernatural elements in which the secrets of the past threaten the present.
Like most books dealing with spooky material, the scariest part of THE PRINCE OF MIST is at the beginning when no one even knows the cause for the mystery. Sometimes the most frightening things are the simplest: a key turning by itself in the wardrobe door, or a push on the stairs in a house one knows to be empty. The children suspect the house is haunted. Once they hear about the drowning of Jacob Fleischman, they assume they are dealing with a ghost, but the truth ends up being much more complex. As the novel progresses, a monstrous figure referred to as the Prince of Mist emerges. He can make wishes come true, but only on the condition of complete loyalty. Those who ignore their promise to him pay with their lives. The Prince of Mist goes by many names, including Dr. Cain, and appears in multiple guises. Long believed to have drowned in the wrecked ship in the bay, the Prince of Mist cheats death by paying for it with the lives of others.
Roland’s grandfather, the lighthouse keeper, confronted the specter of Dr. Cain in the last war. When the ship they were traveling on was dashed to pieces on sharp rocks, Victor was the only survivor. Building a lighthouse out of gratitude for having escaped with his life, Victor has kept watch over the town ever since, never sleeping at night when the sweeping ray of the lighthouse is most needed. Victor tells the boys about Dr. Cain: “One time in a million, someone who is still young understands that life is a one-way journey and he decides that the rules of the game don’t agree with him…. Instead of playing with dice or cards, the game consists of playing with life and death, then the cheater turns into someone very dangerous, indeed.”
Mixing a supernatural mystery with an idyllic summer on the seashore gives THE PRINCE OF MIST an elegiac tone. The sudden changes of temperature, from hot sand to cold ocean currents, from sunny days to supernatural fogs, give the book a visceral touch one can almost feel creeping along one’s skin. One of the friends does not survive the summer. One of them has a secret identity. Not even the wonder of first love will be able to protect the children from a past that threatens to overrun them. It’s not just summers that end, Zafón suggests, but childhood, and eventually life itself.
Initially, I was curious as to why Zafón set THE PRINCE OF MIST during wartime. It seemed unnecessary. The war is mentioned a few times throughout the novel, but the small coastal village seems immune from news or shortages. But one moment from the beginning of the book caught my attention. The local boy, Roland, says this will be his last summer in town because in September he will be drafted. The evil that reaches for these children’s lives isn’t merely that of the supernatural variety. And if evil is more apparent during times of war, that does not mean it sleeps for non-combatants. These children will be asked to pay for a crime that occurred long before their lifetime, committing no sin beyond the accident of birth. This is as inevitable a part of growing up as anything else they encounter in their glorious and terrifying summer.
THE PRINCE OF MIST is recommended for readers who enjoy supernatural mysteries that are never fully explained. Is Dr. Cain’s symbol --- a six-pointed star in a circle --- related to the atrocities that happen just across the border? Are the unnatural prices he asks for the wishes he grants and his relentless collection on his debt related to centuries of anti-Semitic folklore? What significance did the old reels of amateur home movies abandoned in the garage --- which Max screens for clues about his mystery --- have at the time in which they were filmed? What are the adults leaving out when the children ask questions about their past? These questions and others are never fully answered, making THE PRINCE OF MIST the kind of book that keeps returning to the mind of the reader long after the final page is read. As Max marvels while reading a book about the life and thoughts of Copernicus, “In an infinite universe there are too many things that escaped human understanding.”
Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on May 4, 2010
The Prince of Mist
- Publication Date: April 12, 2011
- Genres: Horror
- Paperback: 256 pages
- Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
- ISBN-10: 0316044806
- ISBN-13: 9780316044806