A review by Nalini Haynes
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, ‘Frost at Midnight’, begins ‘The frost performs its secret ministry’. The Secret Ministry of Frost is heavily influenced by the poem.
Light is an albino. Not a person with albinism (PWA) but an albino. Her father disappeared from a research station in the Arctic and has been declared dead so her servant, Butler (shades of Artemis Fowl) can pay the household staff. They file off to the memorial service, Butler carrying an empty coffin on one shoulder, spurning the assistance of villagers who’ve turned out in honour of Lord Fairweather. Or whatever his name was.
Light leaves the wake at the local pub early to wander through the woods. She’s pursued by supernatural creatures and defended by crows. Thus, she’s introduced to the supernatural world.
Butler and Light purchase an icebreaker to travel to the research station to search for Light’s father, encountering a mute captain, a first mate who looks like a parrot, a boy who was an ‘abortion’ and a magical shadow who intends to kill Light. And then there are the villains.
The Secret Ministry of Frost is a horror story whose gore is equal to that of the R-rated TV show Preacher although there’s no serious drug use or nudity in this book.
The plot is cheesy with holes and ‘because plot’ events like an evil henchman suddenly changing sides but it’s no worse than Van Helsing (2004) and other similar horror stories. And anyone who’s seen Macbeth will know the outcome of the prophecy in The Secret Ministry of Frost, possibly the reason why the target market is 11+.
Dark Matter by Michelle Paver is, admittedly, aimed at an older audience although it’s shorter than The Secret Ministry of Frost. However, Dark Matter is far better researched, the story is consistent within itself and its representation of life in Arctic darkness is far more realistic.
Light is 12 years old and yet sometimes I wonder if the author forgot: she kissed a bully in the village to distract him once and she uses the same tactic against a bad guy/monster in the Arctic. She can also drive a variety of vehicles.
She glows white and her colouring is emphasised repeatedly, even in a letter from her father. Her eyes are pink and yet, instead of being vision impaired (legally blind as she should be with her colouring), her eyesight is fabulous except she needs sunglasses to reduce glare when the sun is shining. The author’s research and concession to the realities of albinism extends as far as photophobia and lack of pigment everywhere except her retinas. Not only is Light’s eyesight excellent but she also has excellent 3-dimensional vision and can judge distances like looking at the sea and knowing it’s 20 metres below. I guess Light being vision impaired would have been inconvenient.
Lake discusses bullying at school as the reason Light is forced out into home schooling but he attributes the responsibility to Light not to the bullies: ‘The school in the village had not worked out, of course. Light was too unconventional, too different-looking with her white skin and pink eyes’ (p12).
Within The Secret Ministry of Frost, Light is positioned as a freak although she’s a protagonist. She explains her condition to Tupilak (a chimera) as if their differences are equitable instead of differentiating between a pale girl and a man with a shark’s head and polar bear’s legs and feet. Every significant character is also a freak in some way, which attitude undermines normalising of difference, reinforcing the common perception of people with albinism as freaks.
Although The Secret Ministry of Frost positions Light as a protagonist, without a vision impairment her condition is not medically accurate as relating to her appearance, reinforcing common misunderstandings. The way Light’s albinism is discussed positions people with albinism as different, reinforcing perceptions of us as ‘other’ in spite of her role as primary protagonist. The plot has more holes than Swiss cheese but it is consistent in quality with other popular horror stories in various media (e.g. TV and books). Of all of Nick Lake’s books that I’ve read, The Secret Ministry of Frost is the least worthy.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Format: paper, 368 pages
Publisher: Simon and Schuster