Almost fatally, Zafón never properly defines The Prince of Mist's powers - an omnipotent and all-powerful villain is paradoxically less threatening than one who has to operate within rules - and the book's climax, in particular, doesn't bear a lot of scrutiny.
There's also a startlingly old-fashioned approach to the prose. The opening line - "Max would never forget that faraway summer when, almost by chance, he discovered magic" - is so musty, you want to wipe it with a damp cloth, and the nostalgia is always just on the wrong side of stodgy to ever feel quite timeless. Besides, who would this nostalgia be for? Children aren't necessarily going to care for pastiches of wartime children's literature. They're more likely to wonder if there really were home movie cameras back then portable enough for a seven-year-old to use (I'm guessing probably not).
Once The Prince of Mist gets moving, though, Zafón's real strength shines through: chills. There are some genuinely, deliciously scary sequences that will thrill young readers, particularly if they, like me, have a thing about clowns. And by "thing about", I mean "terrified hatred of". The unevenness here is probably that of a first-time novelist finding his feet, but there are treats enough for an enjoyable read. PATRICK NESS
Reviews: August 2010 Archives
Summer reading for teenagers, reviewed by Geraldine Brennan
The Radleys by Matt Haig
This joint crossover publishing venture by Walker and Canongate (£10) is a witty introduction to present-day vampire lore, set in a North Yorkshire village. Mr and Mrs Radley are abstinent vampires bringing up their children to deny their heritage and avoid their uncle Will, an unreformed bloodsucker who stocks up on his preferred nutrient at a Manchester nightclub. For the young Radleys, vampirism is a blessed relief from the travails of adolescence. Highly recommended. GERALDINE BRENNAN
Summer books for older children, reviewed by Olivia Laing
It was inevitable that Jane Smiley, a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist who also breeds racehorses, would at some point turn her hand to a pony book. After all, she's experimented with pretty much every other genre going, from satire to romance to full-blooded tragedy, and the sound of hooves resounds through almost all of them. Nobody's Horse (Faber £6.99) tells the story of Abby Lovitt, the 12-year-old daughter of a fundamental Christian horse dealer. She's not supposed to get attached to the animals that come and go in their Californian yard, any more than she's supposed to learn about evolution or cheek her parents, but that's not an easy rule to follow when you spend every day in the saddle.
Abby's a brilliant heroine; self-possessed, moral and permanently on the verge of major trouble. Serious riders will appreciate the training tips - including a thorough debunking of a famous scene from The Horse Whisperer - but even those immune to the lure of the stable will empathise with the trials and tribulations of being a seventh grader. It's not always easy to switch from adult to children's fiction, but Smiley makes it look effortless. OLIVIA LAING
Picture books for young children, reviewed by Kate Kellaway
The Fly by Petr Horáček (Walker £10.99) is an irresistible, eye-catching book with a curving loop-the-loop signature, a fly path. The fly launches himself jubilantly, spoiling this only with a rueful postscript: "People don't like me being in the house." He is immaculately drawn, with recognisably repellent diaphanous wings and scarlet proboscis. A convincing day-in-the-life develops: confrontations with a fly swat, a dizzying encircling of a lightbulb, a close encounter with an iced cake. This story may have the unwelcome effect of making children housefly-friendly, but enjoy: it has the wittiest ending - begging the reader not to slam the book shut and make its hero history. KATE KELLAWAY
Theodore Boone, Young Lawyer by John Grisham
reviewed by Philip Ardagh, who is somewhat underwhelmed:
Of course Grisham can write. He's a master of his craft, and there's much to like about Theodore Boone. It's very readable but, despite the boy himself being in the middle of the story, he isn't really at the heart of the action. Why? Because there is no real action, apart from the turning wheels of justice. Let's hope in the next book there's more of a real sense of personal danger and urgency, not just lawyer talk. PHILIP ARDAGH