Carlos Ruiz Zafon's latest, The Angel's Game, is set in Barcelona, Spain and is a prequel of sorts to his wildly successful Shadow of the Wind. Although not as tautly-constructed as Shadow, if you loved it, you'll also enjoy The Angel's Game. If you haven't tried Zafon, go ahead and jump right in; it may be a long and winding road, but it's a lush and entertaining journey.
In the early 1920s, David Martin is a young man who had an extremely difficult childhood – his mother abandoned him and his father was murdered before his eyes. He is taken in by Don Pedro Vidal, scion of a wealthy family and star author of The Voice of Industry, a second-rate Barcelona newspaper. After working as page and errand boy, David proves he can write mysteries and publishes a series in the The Voice of Industry, much to the jealously of the rest of the staff. When he gets the chance, he leaves the paper to write "penny dreadfuls" under a pseudonym for less-than-scrupulous publishers.
David whiles away his 20s writing under a name other than his own, growing weary and ill. He is courted by the mysterious French publisher Andreas Corelli, who wishes to commission a work. When David's only novel under his own name is a dismal failure, he finally agrees. He receives a princely sum, and his health returns. He also accepts the help of the feisty young Isabella as his assistant. Although things seemed to have turned a corner for him, not all is well. He feels his one true love Cristina slipping away from him and grows uneasy with Corelli. The more David learns, the darker the plot becomes, until in the end it hurtles toward the truth and a fiery climax.
Zafon's love of literature, books, and reading remains strongly evident ("Every book has a soul – the soul of the person who wrote it, and the soul of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it." ). Lovers of Shadow of the Wind will be pleased to see Sempere & Sons bookshop play a major role, and the Cemetery of Forgotten Books makes an appearance or two. Major swathes of humor and philosophy also find their way into this long work (531 pages). Its three parts vary in intensity, tone, and plot development, with the second section being the slowest. Still, it is a thought-provoking mystery that is alternately funny and tragic, with a little something for everyone.
One thing I love about Zafon is the atmosphere of his books. Early 20th-century Barcelona is evoked as clearly as a Dickens novel describes 19th-century London. Perhaps this is no accident; David Martin's favorite book as a child is Great Expectations, and Zafon claims Dickens as an inspiration. Zafon's faith in and love of the written word permeates every page.
The Angels Game is also a delight to behold. The book jacket does not cover the whole book; it leaves an inch or so at the top of the book, where the image of books on shelves can be seen. Remove the jacket, and you find the whole hardback cover is a painting of old books on a shelf in a library, with the title of the book and the author's name added as if written on a note sealed with wax a seal on top. This is a wonderful detail, as one of the main characters uses this method of communication and that very seal.
There's so much to like about this book! It is long, and it does take its time getting to the brisk ending, so be forewarned before picking it up. But if you love books and reading, I believe you won't be disappointed.