I liked this one better. That’s right– I enjoyed The Angel’s Game even more than The Shadow of the Wind. It’s not like claiming a preference for the Star Wars prequels, but it’ll get me weird looks.
This is the follow-up to Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s bestseller The Shadow of the Wind, which had even cynics believing that the term “literary thriller” isn’t always an oxymoron. The Angel’s Game is a prequel of sorts. Centering around a new character, it takes place a generation earlier in 1930s Barcelona, an extravagantly miserable city where everyone thinks they’re a writer.
David Martín is the author of the bestselling series of lurid penny-dreadfuls called “City of the Damned.” He spent his young adult life writing these crime stories like clockwork from his home, a foreboding tower house in the city. In churning them out, he was fueled by a dark inspiration he couldn’t explain (not to mention jittering handfuls of drugs), and life takes an ugly turn when he’s diagnosed with a deadly brain tumor and his lifelong crush marries his rival.
But then a mysterious publisher, Andreas Corelli, offers him a small fortune if he’ll write a “fable” that can be the basis of a new religion. As Martín accepts the Faustian pact, he becomes a rich man and his health inexplicably recovers. But people begin dying around him, and the tower house reveals clues of the previous writer who accepted Corelli’s book deal.
As you can tell, this one’s more Poe than Dickens. The core mystery in The Angel’s Game lacks the labyrinthine depth of its predecessor, but it introduces possibly supernatural elements that take Martín’s story to a much darker place.
Descent into Madness? Check.
So as far as I’m concerned, advantage: Angel’s Game. What’s more, Martín’s a terrific protagonist. Whereas Daniel Sempere was a thoughtful dullard who required the company of vivid characters, David is an asshole– an asshole you can support, mind you, as he doesn’t fully deserve his onslaught of misfortunes. He’s that kind of writer who embraces his misery with a roll of the eyes as he lights a cigar. It is odd , though, how he’s not acutely aware of the Mephistophelian aspect of his employer.
(And if you’ve read this book and think that’s a spoiler, I’ve got a big bouncy ball for you to go play with)
Even still, Ruiz Zafón populates the stage with some strong characters, which include those dredged up from their lonely, squalid hovels as David investigates the past. In a subplot that just barely fits into this story, Martín becomes the reluctant mentor to a seventeen-year-old wannabe writer, Isabella, and their relationship is just a gem. They each make sarcastic reference to their companionship as a Mr. Rochester-Jane Eyre pairing, and like much of the dialogue in this book, I love their barbed exchanges to goddamn pieces. But alas, his heart belongs to Cristina, the aforementioned crush who married his best friend. She, by the way, is not really a character so much as a Holy Grail to be snatched away again and again as a means of torturing our protagonist…
That it’s a better book than The Shadow of the Wind doesn’t even seem debatable to me– that is, until the plot sees the finish line and steps on the gas. The climactic chases and struggles constitute a spastic mess, and the body count becomes downright Shakespearean, which goes to show that if you’re having trouble tying up loose ends in your story, start killing off as many characters as you can.
The dismount isn’t entirely graceless. What ultimately happens to Martín is so horribly bittersweet, it leaves me a little more shaken as I think about it.
So yeah, different book from the first. But both are generally well written, and both, of course, contain that overt “book love” in all its pandering glory:
“I stepped into the bookshop and breathed in that perfume of paper and magic that strangely no one had ever thought of bottling.”
Read it if
1. A Spanish-inflected Poe mystery sounds too good to pass up
2. You like, or at least tolerate, ambiguous endings