I received a copy of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “The Angel’s Game” via the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, and while I have received many outstanding books through the program, it’s been some time since I was so excited to be chosen. Zafon’s “Shadow of the Wind” was embraced by book-lovers because of the centrality of books to the narrative, and was a highly regarded worldwide bestseller in 2001.
David Martin is an aspiring young writer, laboring under a newspaper editor who "subscribes to the theory that the liberal use of adverbs and adjectives was the mark of a pervert or someone with a vitamin deficiency." Most of the characters in “The Angel’s Game”, small and large, are drawn with similar uniqueness. Like many young artists in novels, David has a rich patron, Pedro Vidal. Vidal gets David fired from his newspaper job in order to push him into a writing career, helps him get a writing contract, and with the proceeds David acquires a gothic nightmare of a house, that’s been unoccupied for 20 years after some kind of terrible event took place.
The study was at the top of a tall tower, a peculiar structure at the heart of which was a spiral staircase that led off the main corridor, while its outside walls bore the traces of as many generations as the city could remember. There it stood, like a watchtower suspended over the roof of the Ribera quarter, crowned by a narrow dome of metal and tinted glass that served as a lantern, and topped by a weather vane in the shape of a dragon.
Writing under a pen name, David produces “City of the Damned”, a fantastical, gothic tale told in serial installments. At the same time, again anonymously, he works with Christina Sangier to ghostwrite (without Vidal’s knowledge) the novel Vidal is drunkenly dictating to Christina. David is smitten with Christina but she rebuffs him. “City of the Damned” draws the attention of the mysterious French publisher Corelli, who has more than a whiff of the supernatural to him. Corelli enlists David to produce yet a third book, one that will help Corelli create a religion, no less. Working with his newly acquired teenage assistant Isabella, David begins to produce the novel Corelli has paid him an extravagant amount to produce. A series of events shatters David’s life, and at the same time makes him more and more apprehensive about Corelli and the uses to which his book will be put.
Spanish gothic in tone and labyrinthine in plot, “The Angel’s Game” is a compelling read. The characters are all wonderfully quirky or mysterious or both. Occasionally the book’s tone or events veer into the territory of the romance novel, but these moments of lightness or predictability are quickly eradicated by darker forces or events. “The Angel’s Game” is no sequel to “The Shadow of the Wind” – this is a much darker, pessimistic work. The wonderful Cemetery of Forgotten Books, which was first introduced in “Shadow of the Wind”, does make an appearance or two in “The Angel’s Game”, but that role is not central.
Apart from the fantastical elements of the book, The Angel’s Game sometimes evokes the often courtly tone and style of one of Spain’s other great novelists, Arturo Perez-Reverte, and compares favorably with his work. Readers who enjoy Perez-Reverte should enjoy “The Angel’s Game”. While I can’t comment on the fidelity of the translation from the original Spanish, the prose of “The Angel’s Game” is of very high quality and one has no sense whatsoever of reading a translation. Interestingly, the translator of “The Angel’s Game”, as well as “Shadow of the Wind”, is Lucia Graves, the daughter of Robert Graves, the famous poet and author.
The Angel’s Game is a strong novel and stands quite well alone from “Shadow of the Wind”, yet those who loved Shadow of the Wind will enjoy The Angel’s Game. It’s darker in tone, and flags just a bit towards the end, but is well worth the read.