SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Angel’s Game’ (El juego del ángel) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

In an abandoned mansion at the heart of Barcelona, a young man, David MartÌn, makes his living by writing sensationalist novels under a pseudonym. The survivor of a troubled childhood, he has taken refuge in the world of books, and spends his nights spinning baroque tales about the city’s underworld. But perhaps his dark imaginings are not as strange as they seem, for in a locked room deep within the house lie photographs and letters hinting at the mysterious death of the previous owner. 

Like a slow poison, the history of the place seeps into his bones as he struggles with an impossible love. Close to despair, David receives a letter from a reclusive French editor, Andreas Corelli, who makes him the offer of a lifetime. He is to write a book unlike anything that has existed – a book with the power to change hearts and minds. In return, he will receive a fortune, perhaps more. But as David begins the work, he realises that there is a connection between this haunting book and the shadows that surround his home. 

~~

The first installment of this series, The Shadow of the Wind, was a triumph and to follow-up such a tale would have been a huge undertaking. But this book, The Angel’s Game not only continues the story, it also becomes a whole tale on its own and makes Barcelona come to life in a dark, gloomy way.

The story starts with David Martín as a young boy of a murdered father, working as a writer for The Voice of Industry. He manages to get himself work writing fiction, dramatic over-the-top murder mysteries for the newspaper, which doesn’t turn out to be as fun as he thinks it will be. Thanks to having a wealthy friend, Pedro Vidal, a failed writer to lean on, Martín is lucky to eek out a living in gloomy and depressing Barcelona.

Martín’s fortune changes when he gets a new publisher, two greedy men who aren’t worth his time, and Martín is able to lease the tower house of his dreams, an ancient and dismal place where he quickly falls into a habit of writing and neglecting his life and self. Writing as Ignatius B. Sansom, Martín pumps out dark murderous novel after novel, barely eating or sleeping. He soon finds that his 20’s are just rolling by as he sits at the top of his poisonous tower house and bleeds onto his typewriter.

Gothic is the best way to describe the scenes as Martín goes through many changes in 1920’s Barcelona. The scenes are rich and easy to understand, and the characters, while all dark and troubled, are all equally entertaining. Enter Andreas Corelli, a French publisher with an offer too good to be true. With love-life trouble of the highest order, Martín has little else to do but work on the most dreary and thought-provoking novel, one never quite accurately described. A fable, a religious work, a family story – but what ends up on the pages turns out to be pure evil.

As Martín deals with increasingly terrifying meetings with Corelli, ‘the boss’, the history of the tower house and the last writer who lived there and attempted to write a great tale takes ever murderous and scary turns. From basements filled with dummies, evil dogs lurking in the shadows, doves stabbed through the heart, an ageless boss who smiles like a wolf, fires and disasters all over the city, and even a spiderweb-like tumour, Martín’s life descends into madness.

As this book is the prequel of the first in the series, Martín has one bright spot in his life, the Sempere and Sons bookstore. The characters are the grandfather and father of Daniel Sempere, protagonist of the first book, and give more insight into the lives of the Sempere family. Another bright spark is Isabella, a young aspiring writer who latches herself onto Martín and is his saviour multiple times over. Isabella is the only person who can cope with Martín and his bleak attitude, and it’s great to have a strong female character in a book that isn’t there to be some kind of love interest, but a fully fledged character with thoughts and actions that contribute to the story.

The first half of this book is immense; the detail and the writing is superb. Through the latter half of the book, hints fall from all over to give the full picture of what is happening to Martín as he fights to stay alive and try to protect those he loves. Both his friend Pedro Vidal and his wife Cristina, the love of Martín’s life, get in the way of Martín’s spiralling determination to discover the fate of the last owners of the tower house, and the whole picture becomes very desolate. In the end, the body count is high, prices are well and truly paid and Martín’s fate is disturbing indeed.

I rarely read reviews by others before I review, so it doesn’t influence my own opinion, but I couldn’t resist reading a few between reading and reviewing. Yes, this book is very complex, and it seems that this book divides people. There are people who relish the florid prose and detailed vision of the author, and some seemed disappointed. Some felt the book was too complicated at the end. Personally, there are so many hints to the fate of Martín and of Andreas Corelli. Yes, there is a huge cache of characters to follow, but with such vivid descriptions, I felt it easy to keep up and the outcome, to me, was sad but simple. This book is far removed from the first in the series, it’s a dark prequel which only has a slim connection to the first book. Readers should be prepared for that fact. There is a third book in the series, which I will review next week, and that ties together The Shadow of  the Wind and The Angel’s Game  beautifully, for all to see. If you do find The Angel’s Game complex, you should read the third book, as it gives you a clearer picture of the characters and how they bind together.

The first book is a dream; no question. The Angel’s Game feels like the author let go and wrote everything he had ever dreamed of, and was given all the rope he needed to produce the work he loved. If I was asked to pick which book is best in the series, I would say The Angel’s Game is the narrow winner, because it’s dark, complex, sophisticated and you can feel the dampness of the tower house, the pain in Martín’s head, the warmth of Sempere and Sons bookstore and the ice underneath Cristina’s bloodied feet. I did a little Carlos Ruiz Zafón wander last May on my last visit to Barcelona, and he makes the city seems so alive in all new ways. This book is for everyone who wants characters who hold nothing back. Just don’t sit alone in the dark while you read.

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