The Angel’s Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

with dust cover

with dust cover

Translated by Lucia Graves

Just as there must be Christmas movies, so also must there be summer books. In the winter, with holiday time off, there needs to be a place to go. In the summer, we are already there, away from it all, but we need something to do — and we complain the rest of the year about not having time to read, so now is the time.

Ideally, the summer book is written by an author with an established reputation for producing them (debut novels where the publisher pays an enormous advance also qualify, but marketing expenses go way up). It needs to be long, at least 500 pages, because it has to last the whole vacation, if not the whole summer. “Gothic” or “epic” is a useful descriptor; “intrigue”, “romance” and “tragedy” are also helpful. It needs to be serious but not too serious — a worthy vacation project, but it is a vacation after all. And all of this must be packaged in a very distinctive cover, not just to be recognized across the airplane aisle or beach but also to serve as the conversation opener to help meet new friends (and sell more copies of the book). In recognition of the importance of the work, it also requires a suitably hefty cover price.

without dust cover

without dust cover

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Angel’s Game meets all the above criteria and all the phrases in the paragraph above are used in Amazon’s blurb to describe it. It is the second in what the author says is “a fictional universe” of four volumes (franchise here?) set in Barcelona, all featuring the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. The first, The Shadow of the Wind, was an international bestseller — this one is already #3 on The Times hardcover list, was #10 on the Amazon.com literary fiction list only 10 days after publication and is an online bestseller at chapters.ca. (EDIT: And it debuts June 28 as #3 on the NY Times fiction list.) It is serious in a non-threatening kind of way and the North American cover pictured at the top of this review is one of the best-designed for sales in recent memory, although somewhat clumsy when it comes to actually reading the book. That cropped individual in the picture is actually a three-quarter dust jacket; take it off and the cover is a beautiful array of six shelves of ancient books.

A steady diet of books like this is not for me, but I cheerfully admit I read at least one of them a year (last summer it was The Gargoyle by Andrew Davison — this one is light years better). I do it partly so I will have a “read” book in common with good friends who don’t get a lot of time to read but also because, when read in the right frame of mind, and in moderation, a summer book of quality offers quite a decent return on the time invested. The Angel’s Game meets that test.

Novels like this are plot-driven, so spoilers in a review are devastating and I will offer the bare minimum of description. In Act One, City of the Damned, we meet a young man, David Martin, a copyrunner in the newsroom of a Barcelona newspaper, who wants to be a writer. He has attracted a powerful mentor to help him along and soon is turning out potboilers (The City of the Damned) under a pseudonym. He has “great expectations” (summer books need references to great writers) and eventually meets up with a French publisher (who may or may not be real) who commissions him to write a specific work.

In Act Two, Lux Aeterna, David signs on to the project for 100,000 francs and the promise of a cure to the brain tumor that is supposed to kill him within nine months. Echoes of Faust? Asking the question is no spoiler but there is no way I’m giving you the answer here. This pact with the “angel” (the publisher wears the lapel pin of an angel that is on the dust jacket) spins subplots too numerous to count, let alone mention.

Act Three, The Angel’s Game, brings them all to a conclusion — any description would be fatal.

Zafon carries this all off with a writing style that is fast-paced and reader friendly. It is impossible to illustrate in a short quote but Doubleday helpfully provides
the first chapter here. If you are interested in the book at all, it is worth checking out. Even if you aren’t, it is a no-cost example of how successful authors of books of this genre write.

Zafon also frequently uses dialogue and conversation (often extended over a couple of pages) to both advance the story and, more unusually, offer some humor. An example:

“Will you accept a cup of tea?”
“Or two. And a Bible. If possible, one that is easy to read.”
“That won’t be a problem,” said the bookseller. “Dalmau?”
The shop assistant called Dalmau came over obligingly.
“Dalmau, our friend Martin here needs a Bible that is legible, not decorative. I’m thinking of Torres Amat, 1825. What do you think?”
One of the peculiarities of Barcelo’s bookshop was that books were spoken of as if they were exquisite wines, catalogued by bouquet, aroma, consistency, and vintage.
“An excellent choice, Senor Barcelo, although I’d be more inclined toward the updated and revised edition.”
“Eighteen sixty?”
“Eighteen ninety-three.”
“Of course. That’s it! Wrap it up for our friend Martin and put it on the house.”

Zafon and translator Lucia Graves (the book was originally in Spanish — poor Graves finally gets a mention on an inside title page) carry this off with some aplomb. The little asides like the above are particularly appreciated while you catch your breath from the galloping plot.

The Angel’s Game is a “page-turner” (yes, Amazon’s description includes that, although they throw in a “dazzling” adjective). Also, and this you won’t find in the description, it is “putdownable”. That sounds like a bad thing, but for a summer book it definitely is not. The book is “putdownable” in the sense that when it is time for a trip to the village or to take a swim or to fire up the barbeque, the response of “just let me finish this chapter” will never involve a wait of more than five minutes and there is no need for memory refreshing when the book is picked up later. That is an invaluable trait in a good summer book.

As noted earlier, this is volume two in a projected four book project, centred on the Cemetery of Forgotten Books (sorry, but description of that is a spoiler). I haven’t read the first — The Shadow of the Wind — but in his little Amazon essay Zafon says each of the four is meant to be stand-alone. If you want, the cemetery has four gates and you can enter just as well from any of the four. In timing, this book is set earlier (1917 to 1930) than The Shadow; I suspect those who read the first will find things that I didn’t but I never felt I was missing something.

So. “Intrigue”? There is never a point where there aren’t a number of intrigues of varying complexity going on. “Tragedy”? Constant — if not from the past, then in the present, with ultimate tragedy looming in the future. “Romance”? Yes, but frankly less than the other two.

The Angel’s Game has lots of weaknesses, but it is holiday-time and we overlook all sorts of weaknesses then. My biggest problem with the book will probably be its greatest strength with most readers. I can just hear people saying: “It goes on and on and I hope it never ends”. Whereas my (relatively minor) problem was “it is going on and on; will it never end?” Unlike a lot of similar books (including the previous volume from Zafon as I understand from reviews) when it ends, it ends. There is a short epilogue but it is almost like an HBO trailer promoting past and future episodes.

I have to confess I read this book at home because I wanted to get this review up for consideration by visitors here who are looking for a vacation book. The problem for me is that a mini-vacation is coming up in a month and now I am going to have to find another summer book. I already have the sinking feeling that it won’t be nearly as entertaining as this one was.

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24 Responses to “The Angel’s Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón”

  1. kimbofo Says:

    This is an excellent review, Kevin. In fact, I think you may have “sold” this book to me, when I’d already decided it really wasn’t for me. I tried to read “Shadows” a couple of years back and couldn’t get past the first chapter. I wondered what all the fuss was about — I lost track of the number of people who told me I *must* read it.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, kimbofo, although now I am fearing that you will be back soon telling me that I’m responsible for wasting your time. I certainly don’t regard this book as a “must” read, but approached in the right frame of mind (and with appropriate expectations) I think it has merit. There is also a part of me that is quite willing to invest time in looking at work that others do find so appealing, if only to figure out why. With that link in the review, this time you can at least check out the first chapter without investing anything but a little bit of time.

    Just to let you know that I am not the only one on the hook, John McGarhern’s Amongst Women arrived a few days ago and will be slotted into the reading order shortly.

  3. kimbofo Says:

    As you state, sometimes you have to approach books in a certain frame of mind and with appropriate expectations. Personally I don’t see the merit in restricting oneself to a particular genre or reading solely literary fiction; I have very eclectic reading tastes, as my blog will attest, and sometimes it’s a relief to just read a book for the sheer enjoyment of it and not because it’s got literary kudos.

    On another note, I can’t wait to hear what you think of Amongst Women. I married into a large Irish Catholic family and this book just rang a lot of bells for me. I still think McGahern’s The Barracks is a must-read, closely followed by That They May Face the Rising Sun.

  4. Isabel Says:

    Thanks for this review.

    I loved the previous novel and am glad to hear that this one is wonderful!

  5. Colette Jones Says:

    I finally figured out what you mean by the three-quarter dust jacket. This is because with numbers my brain must see it exactly and this looks like a nine-tenths dust jacket. Doesn’t have the same ring to it.

    I have this book because my husband loved Shadow of the Wind (which I liked but not as much as many people did). I thought the concept of a summer read was a UK invention but obviously not! I was looking at some books in Waterstone’s yesterday which looked interesting and then I saw at the top of the shelving section “New Summer Reads”. I walked away, I’m afraid. You are the first person to convince me that I might like a “summer read”. I’m sure I will hope it ends though! :)

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Well, it might actually be closer to nine-tenths — but I think I would confuse people even more if I said “90 per cent dust jacket”. The UK version does look like a more conventional production. I’ll be interested in hearing from someone who has read both books — I liked this well enough that in the right mood I might well be interested in Shadow (I see from the NY Times today that it has sold 12 million copies — pretty impressive, whatever you might think of the book).

    The true “summer reads” project is when you share, as we used to, a cottage with a number of other readers coming from various different parts (and reading tastes). Each brings a book and then they get passed on through the gathered assemblage. I remember one year that feature Cormac McCarthy (first of the road trilogy, I think); Donna Tartt’s The Secret History; some weird murder mystery and Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees. Now that was serious summer reading.

  7. Colette Jones Says:

    Sounds like great fun, Kevin. I haven’t read Fall on Your Knees yet, but I loved her other one… so much that I can’t remember the name of it right now… but I really did love it. (This is the kind of situation which is scary after having read The Wilderness… I really can’t think of the name of the book… oh dear).

  8. Colette Jones Says:

    THE WAY THE CROW FLIES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    You have much to look forward to then — most people (including me) think Fall on Your Knees is a much superior book. As for the memory thing, the dangerous time is when you can remember the title from 20 years ago but not the one of the book you were reading yesterday.

  10. Colette Jones Says:

    My 1989 first edition “A Prayer for Owen Meany” is still on my shelf and emblazoned on my mind.

  11. Colette Jones Says:

    Quite a long discussion of The Way the Crow Flies at this site:

    http://www.bookgrouponline.com/forum/showthread.html?t=3168&page=1&pp=15&highlight=crow+flies

    This came about when another forum (Book Talk Forums) closed unexpectedly, just as a group were about to discuss the book. The moderators at BookGroupOnline (reluctantly we found out later) gave us permission to have our discussion there but then told us they didn’t like our “style” when we tried to start a discussion of The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson.

  12. Max Cairnduff Says:

    “serious in a non-threatening kind of way ” – Brilliant Kevin, nicely put.

    I’ve read The Shadow of the Wind, so I won’t be reading this. I’m glad Isobel enjoyed it, many did, but I found it overlong and overobvious and unfortunately guessed the big reveal very quickly.

    It went on for page after page, after page, after page. Much happened, it was full of incident, and yet nothing of it remains with me. It was full of atmosphere, but artificially created and of places that never have and never could exist. Were it a fantasy novel, I’d have more sympathy with that, as it was it was merely fantastic.

    But, I’m a minority. This sounds very similar. If therefore someone reads this review and is tempted by the book, The Shadow of the Wind will also be a good choice. If you liked The Shadow of the Wind, I’d guess very much that you’ll like this. We can’t all like the same stuff, Zafon is accessible and widely read and I wish him every success, but this sounds just like the one I read and for me one was enough.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Your comments elsewhere were one of the reasons I was able to enjoy this work, Max — since I know something about your tastes, I was able to approach it with appropriate concerns and expectations. It meant that some of what would have been disappointments caused me to say, yes, I should expect that. While I quite appreciated this reading experience, I won’t be rushing out to start The Shadow of the Wind.

  14. Sheila o'Brien Says:

    Collette:
    “A Prayer for Owen Meany” is such a memorable and haunting book I dont think it’s a reliable indicator of memory loss.I loved it on first read, and have gone back to it three or four times – it just keeps getting better.

  15. Colette Jones Says:

    Thanks, Sheila. I think I have still only read it once but I must read it again some day.

  16. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Glad to be of help Kevin, sometimes a change in prior expectation really is all that’s needed to enable one to enjoy a work. Although much less ambitous, I’ve enjoyed far more Perez-Reverte’s modern fiction because I went in knowing him mainly as an author of swashbuckling historical fiction and contemporary thrillers. Knowing that, my expectations were appropriate, I read them when that was what I was in the mood for and have enjoyed them all hugely.

    With Zafon, my expectations weren’t quite so in line, though even if they had I think I’d have found Shadow overlong. Perez-Reverte, to his credit, knows that if you’re writing something essentially pulpy (which I think his non-historical fiction largely is) brevity is your friend.

    On an unrelated note, I was very happy to mention you over at the Guardian’s blog, the writer asked for good literary blog recommendations, it would have been odd not to mention yours.

  17. Gillian Howard Says:

    Many thanks Kevin. As you know, I’m about to go sailing for two weeks and need a book that can be interupted frequently. Two years ago I thought Anna Karenina would do the trick…..very long so just one book to tote and read so long ago that it would do with a reread. Never cracked the spine! So, will pick this up and see whether it can be tossed aside when there’s a need to trim sails, and resumed when things quiet down.

    BTW – I thought you’d photographed your own bookshelves for a moment with the cover shot, dust jacket removed.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Gillian: Stay tuned for the Everyman’s Library post later this week which does feature a real KevinfromCanada photo — the shelves are just about as good.

    On a more serious matter, this would be a very good Mediterranean holiday book, although the hardcover version might be a little heavy. If I remember right, you are heading to Croatia — perhaps The Bridge on the Drina might be more appropriate? An absolutely great book — serious, but could be offset by reading a companion volume of Edward/Wallace Simpson visiting the same area. Nice contrast that would be.

  19. John Self Says:

    Like Max, I’ve read Shadow of the Wind and won’t be reading this. It sounds from what you say, Kevin, as though The Angel’s Game is very much more of the same – which will delight millions of Zafón’s readers.

    I did enjoy Shadow of the Wind very much, despite and because it was an over-the-top romp, but I do clearly recall feeling that it had about three endings too many.

    Also, Kevin, your mention of The Bridge on the Drina is the second one I’ve experienced in a couple of days – the other being the surprise entry in a list of tennis players’ favourite books – and that, by my own rules of these things, means I must order a copy. Thank you.

    • Colette Jones Says:

      Interesting approach, JS. I see The Master and Margarita in that tennis player’s list, and heard it on Radio 4 last week. I think I’ll adopt your policy and get it.

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: I can only agree with all your thoughts on this book. As for The Bridge on the Drina, whatever tennis player takes you there, it is a great book. Good luck, and my tennis is hopeless.

  21. alison Says:

    Thnaks for this excellent review. Your recommendation convinced me to pick up this book and I know I would have passed it over had I not heard about it from you. It’s everything you say it is, the perfect summer read; not flawless, but a true page turner (ask my neighbours who saty with me on the ferry boat this morning as I buried my nose in the final section and avoided conversation.) There were times I could put it down and go to my summer reading project, Infinite Jest, and then return without losing me mental place. Normally I wouldn’t have stayed with such a gotghic kind of tale, but the dialogue was entertaining and the story was an unusal mind twister, so it was great company.

  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks Alison — “great company” is a very good description of the book.

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