Some years back when I reviewed Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind for The Compulsive Reader, I found it a combination of page-turning story telling with significant post modern overtones. And although the climactic ending was something of a disappointment, it was a comparatively minor flaw (and who can forget Samuel Johnson's comment on a passage he found objectionable in Milton's Paradise Lost — flaws so great who could wish away) in what was otherwise a truly excellent novel. Not surprisingly, when Zafón's latest, The Angel's Game came out, I was quite eager to get my hands on it.
Unfortunately, I was a bit disappointed. Not that the story is poorly told; Zafón is nothing if not a fine story teller. There are mysterious secrets to be revealed; there are thwarted lovers. There are Gothic settings, supernatural presences, murders and betrayals. It is a big novel in the tradition of the great nineteenth century story teller, Zafón refers to over and over again in the novel, Charles Dickens. Not only does he subscribe to the Dickensian emphasis on elaborately plotted fiction, he peoples that fiction with a cast of characters, major and minor, that could easily find a home in one of the darker Dickens novels.
The hero and narrator, David Martin, although a talented writer, finds it expedient to produce pulp supernatural fiction as a means of paying his bills. Like Pip's in Great Expectations, his story begins in childhood, and, like Pip, he is helped through life by mysterious benefactors whose motives he doesn't understand. Indeed, like many first person narrators, he is often the last to understand what is going on around him. Much of the mystery in the book is grounded in Martin's failure to see things, almost at times refusing to see them for what they are. He has a love interest who feels obligated to another. He has a love interest that he either pays no attention or treats badly. A variety of characters come to Martin's aid in the course of the book — another writer with wealth of his own, a book store owner, an editor, a publisher, a young girl who wants to be a writer — some with good intentions, some with evil. There are villainous policemen who play good cop, bad cop, witch-like old women, and pettifogging lawyers.
Moreover, there are even one or two of those nice little post modern ironic moments tucked into this book as well. David Martin makes himself a success writing in the Grand Guignol, a thriller genre that he thoroughly deprecates, yet it is quite obviously the genre of the work in which he appears, and a genre in which Zafón himself excels. While his thrillers are hugely popular and sell extremely well, they are not the kind of work he respects, and when he finally does write something that he considers has worth, it has no success at all. There is an interesting discussion of the relationship between books and the souls of the writers as well as of those who read them. Thus, when a writer sells his work to a publisher there are certain obvious Faustian indications, especially when that publisher seems to be making an offer that certainly looks too good to be true.
Although The Angel's Game is not really a prequel to The Shadow in the Wind, it does have its echoes in the earlier book. Most importantly there is the Barcelona setting. The city, its cafes, streets and architectural landmarks provide a loving richness of detail to the story. Barcelona holds a place in Zafón's novels similar to that of London in Dickens. The "Cemetery of Forgotten Books," a huge labyrinthine library in which all books are saved until someone comes along and adopts one, vowing to keep it alive, makes an appearance in both books. And the owner of the Sempere bookstore who aids David as a young boy, turns out to be the grandfather of Daniel Sempere, the hero of the The Shadow in the Wind.
The problem with The Angel's Game is that for all his supposed talents as a writer, David Martin's narrative is not always very compelling. Despite the novel's length, David never comes to life either as a poor orphan or a wealthy author. Zafón is content to develop his character in stereotypical ways, rather than creating a multi-dimensional personality. This is in many ways true of all the characters — too many of them seem to belong in B movies. If it's hard to care about the characters, it's hard to care about their story. Finally the prose style doesn't always do justice to the content. This is especially true of the dialogue. In the end, The Angel's Game is not a bad book, it's just that sometimes when you have "great expectations," they don't always pan out.