It’s not often that the setting of a book becomes a major character by almost, but not quite, overshadowing the main characters. There is an engaging and sympathetic human hero in THE ANGEL’S GAME, and most certainly an arch-villain. But through the vivid language of Carlos Ruiz Zafon, the surreal city of early-20th century Barcelona very nearly upstages both with its moods, its weather and its sinister beauty. And lying deep within this living, breathing, sometimes loving but often hostile metropolis is hidden the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a colossal, labyrinthine library housing millions of volumes of the greatest books ever written throughout history.
Against this towering backdrop, David Martin, an ambitious young journalist for a local newspaper, dreams of becoming a novelist. His editor sees promise in his writing and offers him a promotion --- a series called The Mysteries of Barcelona, a Byzantine melodrama featuring gangsters, action and romantic interludes. David spends his late nights plunking out what he considers nothing better than the popular dime novels of the era. He nevertheless develops a wide readership and one day receives a fan letter that includes a cryptic invitation to appear at an address he’s never heard of.
When he arrives, he finds a world within Barcelona he didn’t know existed. There, he is seduced by an exotic beauty with the same name as the heroine of his mysteries. He awakens to discover she’s gone, but finds another invitation to meet with a Parisian publisher. The publisher offers him a fortune to write a book for which “people will live and die” --- a story of the ages. Upon completion of the book, he is promised a fortune and fulfillment of his wildest dreams.
David is taken to a mysterious place unknown to but a few, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. There he is instructed to roam its towering stacks and select a book of his choice. The volume that grabs his attention appears to be a religious treatise. As David is drawn ever more deeply into the true dark and shadowy intrigue of Barcelona, he realizes the book he selected is similar to the subject matter he is being asked to produce. Tempted by the offer and intrigued by the mystery surrounding it, he gives up his job at the newspaper, rents a drafty, deserted mansion in the old part of Barcelona and begins to write. As he feverishly composes chapter after chapter, he receives periodic sealed envelopes with instructions to meet the publisher and turn over what he has written. As he continues, disturbing events ensnare him further into his bond with the publisher, who seems to have tentacles into the very power structure of Barcelona. Soon David is under his full command.
Having chilling encounters with characters who may be real or perhaps figments of his imagination, David is drawn into a terrifying maze of events that threaten his sanity if not his life.
THE ANGEL’S GAME writhes and twists in the fashion of Edgar Allan Poe. The plot development could be likened to that of Charles Dickens. If readers have had the treat of reading Zafon’s first novel, they will understand the irresistible pull of his writing. Although THE SHADOW OF THE WIND is set in Barcelona 20 years after THE ANGEL’S GAME, his latest is not a prequel, nor is it a developing series in the true sense of the word. Each exquisite book stands alone, but a thread binds them between the 20-year time gap.
We can compare Zafon to Dickens or Poe, but his brilliant writing puts him in a league of his own. Written in his native Spanish, the translations only lead the reader to wonder at the beauty and suspense in the original. His books have been translated into 40 languages, and he is considered one of the world’s best-loved writers. With a promise of two more books that will feature the intrigue that is Barcelona, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and perhaps even a character or two, we only have to ask: Will they be from the 19th century or the 21st?
Reviewed by Roz Shea on May 23, 2012
The Angel's Game