Like its predecessor, Prospero Lost, aspects of Prospero in Hell evoke other works — most prominently The Tempest and The Inferno, but Lamplighter’s squabbling, centuries-old, magic-wielding siblings recall both Gaiman and Zelazny — while remaining wholly its own thing. Prospero in Hell addresses some of the weaknesses that bothered me about the first volume. Narrator Miranda’s emotional remoteness is explicitly dealt with; despite the fact that she’s centuries old, the trilogy seems to be a coming-of-age story for her, among other things. And the inclusion of St. Nicholas in the first book, which seemed like an out-of-place episodic encounter, is revealed to be less an aberration than a foundation for exploration of how Lamplighter’s world-building incorporates elements of both pagan and Judeo-Christian mythic traditions.
Inconsistent tone continues to bother me a bit. At its extremes, Prospero in Hell incorporates both (brief) moments of gross-out horror and (not quite so brief) dreamy, catalog-of-wonders interludes that place the plot on hold (Millhauser’s From the Realm of Morpheus came to mind when the book slipped into this mode).
My biggest gripe, again, is structural. Prospero in Hell is a novel when judged by word count, but very clearly the second act of a three-act play; it ends with an almost literal cliffhanger. It’s been nearly two years since I read Prospero Lost, and I struggled to recall relevant details despite a generous sprinkling of “remember when this happened” moments. If Lamplighter wraps up her story satisfyingly we’ll have three good fantasy novels in our universe — but I can’t help but wonder if there’s a single, slightly leaner and even better novel in some alternate universe where publishing dictates are a little different.
However, there’s no chance I’ll wait two years to read Prospero Regained. Prospero in Hell was a lot of fun, incorporating some nifty variations on the classic texts it references, an impressive array of (mostly but not exclusively European) mythic and folkloric elements, some big plot twists (including two that caught me unawares), more satisfying character development than the first book, and clever applications and extrapolations of magical powers.
needs more demons? on balance, no.