Perhaps it's not the style these days, but when I read a book I want to feel the cracks in the sidewalk beneath a character's feet as he walks down the street, smell the odors that waft from the bakery, and feel the cold wind bite my cheeks. It’s all very well and good to let us know what things and people look like, but I want to experience the world and be immersed in it. If I wanted to be a passive observer I'd watch television instead of reading a book.
If you share that sentiment then you'll probably take as much pleasure in reading The Angel’s Game, the latest offering from Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Set in Barcelona, the majority of the action takes place in the period before the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. The book opens in 1917 with the narrator, David Martín, recalling how that year when he was seventeen, he was first paid for his writing. Instead of this being a pleasant memory, however, he believes the moment a writer first sells a piece he puts a price on his soul and becomes doomed. When the price of a man’s soul is mentioned in the first paragraph of a book, it's a good bet the story is going to have something to do with the forces of darkness and a descent into one type of Hell or another is in the cards.
Before we take that plunge, Zafón makes sure we know why it happens to David; not only was he abysmally poor as a child, but he was raised by his alcoholic, ex-military father. Zafón manages to capture the real horror of what poverty does to a child, taking away his or her expectations of anything good. A copy of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations makes David realize that the idea of a poor person having expectations of any sort is ridiculous; he’s lucky even that his father even allows him to attend school and learn to read and write. After beating David for wasting money on electricity in order to read the Dickens novel by night, his father begins to have a change of heart and allows David to buy books, but as David begins to have expectations of a relationship with him, his father is gunned down in front of him.
As a result of his father's death he meets the man who is to become his patron and mentor, Pedro Vidal. Vidal not only gets him a job at the newspaper he writes for, he's also responsible for David’s first paid writing assignment. When that job comes to an end, Pedro finds a publisher to employ David to write an ongoing crime fiction series. With an income assured, he's able to find a place to live outside of the slums. Since he was a child, David has been attracted to an old abandoned mansion. As soon as he has the money to afford it, he takes out a lease on the building and moves in.
Almost immediately after his first story is published in the newspaper, David begins to receive mysterious letters congratulating him on his success. These letters contain a most unusual request: the mysterious correspondent wants to commission David to write a religion. At first David dismisses the idea as crazy, but the publisher is persistent and finally David agrees to the contract.
Taking the job begins his descent into his personal hell. When David begins to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his home’s previous owner, he discovers that the man had been working on his own book for a mysterious publisher. David is drawn into a conspiracy reaching into the highest ranks of society. Corpses begin to pile up as police begin to suspect David. He can't shake the feeling that his mysterious publisher is somehow at the root of all this and he's determined to get to the bottom of it all.
With The Angel's Game, Zafón has created a multilayered treat for readers incorporating all the best elements of gothic horror and crime fiction while simultaneously creating incredibly realistic characters. As David descends into darkness, so does the book. Though the early sections of the book do contain some sadness, there are moments of genuine humor and an overall lightness of spirit that reflects David's initial optimism. As the story progresses, the city itself begins to descend into darkness and gloom until the final climax is played out under a black sky streaked "with veins of red light."
Zafón has gone to great pains to bring every scene to life in such a manner that as a reader you feel the cobblestones beneath your feet as David walks through the older parts of Barcelona. The locations in this book are as fully realized as characters as the people who populate them. Aside from there not being a dull moment to be found throughout the length of The Angel's Game, its a marvelous depiction of one man's descent into darkness. It's all too easy to look at the character of David Martín and see parts of yourself reflected back, as you have to wonder how you would react if all of the expectations you had for your life were to slowly erode in front of your eyes. It's not often you'll find a book that's not only a page-turner but also as thought-provoking as this one; a rare combination that deserves to be savored and read over and over again.