"Max would never forget that faraway summer when, almost by chance, he discovered magic." So begins The Prince of Mist, the first novel by Spain's most notable literary export since Cervantes. And it's an extraordinary start; punchy, memorable and telling. Combined with the great expectations of all those readers won over by the dizzying charms of The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game, it sets a high bar for the remainder of this short, sharp novel to reach.
It's taken nearly 20 years for Carlos Ruiz Zafon's all-ages debut to overcome the language barrier, and it arrives on our English-speaking shores courtesy of the same superlative translator - Lucia Graves - who brought us the author's more adult efforts. In that time, Zafon has been catapulted from moderate renown in a modest nation to global literary stardom, and it's little wonder: The Shadow of the Wind was a spellbinding meta-textual labyrinth of a narrative, and though less critically acclaimed, I found its physical and spiritual successor to be nearly the equal of that unforgettable experience.
The lineage of The Prince of Mist, however, is a less certain thing. The tale of a young boy whose close-knit family the war has forced into a seaside retreat, and who finds in the overgrown garden behind his idyllic new home the beginnings of a mystery that soon comes to captivate his shell-shocked imagination, Zafon's reclaimed debut is fun, no doubt about it, and accomplished - for a first novel - but otherwise... unremarkable. Needless to say it's no regression, but reading a novel divorced from its proper chronological order in which the ideas and themes that so dazzled in Zafon's later adult fiction are but sparks, glittering beneath the waves of the coastal refuge Max finds with a friend, is a curious and somewhat deflating experience.
So put your expectations away: this is not - not quite - the sort of fiction that we have come to stand in awe of Carlos Ruiz Zafon for. In fact, those glimmers that point to the author's eventual literary evolution can be so distracting as to prove problematic. If you can hide that context in the back of your mind, you'll find what The Prince of Mist is, assuredly, is a fine example of fanciful, young adult fantasy. You'll read it in an evening and perhaps forget it in a week, but for those few hours spent immersed in its evocative environs, you can be sure you'll have a jolly old time of it.
The plan is to publish Zafon's three remaining YA novels over the next three years, and I for one will be there for them, but ultimately, The Prince of Mist is but a pleasant blip of a book. Readers of all ages will find within its pages a grand, fast-paced and involving narrative, and while there will be among those a few who hold The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game in such high regard that they'll surely struggle to see past their preconceptions, bear in mind that, in the author's own words, The Prince of Mist "was the book that allowed me to become a professional writer and to start my career as a novelist," and for that - and not that alone, I should stress - we must be thankful.