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.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.”
“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.