“The Angel’s Game” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Read “The Angel’s Game”

Yesterday, I reviewed Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s brilliant novel, The Shadow of the Wind. Continuing with the “holy crap this is good” theme, today I’m taking a look at his follow up, The Angel’s Game.

While both The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game are completely stand-alone novels, they are subtly connected. The two novels both a part of what Zafón says will eventually be a four-book cycle of loosely connected stories with overlapping narratives and characters. Either can be read alone, but reading both makes each a deeper and richer experience. In fact, I read The Angel’s Game at the same time that my wife Carol and I were reading The Shadow of the Wind aloud to one one another, a strange and wonderful experience.

The Angel’s Game has quite a lot in common with its predecessor. Familiar locations recur, such as the mysterious and tantalizing Cemetery of Forgotten Books and the dear, familiar, dusty coziness of Sempere and Son book shop. Familiar characters appear, if only briefly—welcome reunions with old friends. And once again, the true star of the work is the poetry of Zafón’s heartbreakingly lovely language —every sentence is a treasure—and the richly gothic and atmospheric streets of Zafón’s Barcelona, beautiful, seductive, and dangerous, as vivid as any gas-lit corner of Dickens’ London.

The differences, though are  stark. The Angel’s Game is a much darker book, with grizzly murders, doomed romance, and subtle, shadowed, edge-of-your-vision elements of the supernatural. If the mystery in The Shadow of the Wind leaned precariously toward the noir end of the spectrum, The Angel’s Game makes a leap. At times it moves close to old-school gothic horror. It’s never graphic; it never even comes close. It’s certainly not the gruesome slasher porn of today. It’s a subtler dread that calls upon the imagination to ponder what might be lurking in midnight’s deepest shadows—those in the city and those in the heart. The Angel’s Game builds dread through hints and atmosphere, making a truly spin-tingling read that haunts the heart long after the last page is turned.

It’s not all fear, though. There is beauty, too, and love. Certainly that. Beauty makes the dread that much worse, and the hope that much dearer. The theme of the book is introduced in the first lines:

“A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood, and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he covets the most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on, he is doomed, and his soul has a price.”

The novel explores, subtly, long before we’ve begun to realize it’s doing so, what it means to sell one’s soul, the many ways we do so, what is gained, and what is lost. Is the gain worth the cost? I’m not sure even the characters themselves could answer that. The question lingers, haunting like the memory of a nightmare, or a fond wish. To me, one of the strengths of The Angel’s Game is that it raises questions and only hints at the answers, leaving the reader to interpret in a sort of storytelling collaboration between artist and audience.

Some of the reviews I’ve read have complained about the ambiguity of the ending. Honestly, I hadn’t even noticed the ambiguity until I read about it those reviews. Most of those critics, I think, seem to expect some kind of science-fictiony explanation for everything that’s happened. Like God is an alien computer or something like that. That sometimes works brilliantly in a novel like say, Dune, say, or Hyperion. Indeed, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion (one story in two volumes, both of which which rank among my very favorites) together are a kind of cosmic science fiction dealing with the ultimate mysteries of how the universe is structured and how reality functions—although personally, I think Hyperion’s latter sequels, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, weaken the first two novels by explaining far too much and making the grand sweep too mundane. I digress.

The point is, The Angel’s Game is not that kind of book. It works according to something akin to dream logic. To me, the ending is satisfying and thematically appropriate, and it’s one that I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come. Although I confess I am eager to see what Zafón will do in later volumes. Something this good deserves to continue. When Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s next book is released at last, I’ll be first in line. I hope I’ll see you there. Don’t miss these books. And please be sure to let me know what you think, okay?

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3 responses to ““The Angel’s Game” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

  1. Christine Heller

    John, I’m definitely going to read these books based on your high praise.

  2. Pingback: Book Review: “The Magician King” by Lev Grossman | John Adcox Reviews Pretty Much Anything

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