The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

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The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Not a prequel or a sequel to Shadow of the Wind but some of the same people at a different time. With more supernatural elements than Shadow it might not appeal to all those who thought that was one of the best books they'd ever read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: May 2009
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
ISBN: 978-0297855545

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It's many years now since I read Shadow of the Wind and for some time I thought that it would be one of those marvellous books, complete in itself, which I would revisit as a treat. For a year or more I've been aware that there was to be a follow-up (but actually a prequel) and I could hardly wait.

Be careful of what you wish for, for surely it might come true used to be the saying. Perhaps there should be a pithy phrase to warn readers that the book you can't wait for will never quite live up to your hopes, for so it is with The Angel's Game. I've just looked back over the notes that I've made as I've been reading and they're mainly critical – but this wasn't, by any means, a bad book. It's simply one that's been overburdened by expectations.

We're back in Barcelona, but this time it's the turbulent nineteen twenties. David Martin's vicious, junkie father was gunned down before his eyes leaving him to fend for himself at a relatively young age. He longs to write and first makes his living writing penny dreadfuls under a pseudonym for a couple of unscrupulous publishers - but a visit from a reclusive French editor tempts him to take up the offer of writing a book which will influence people and form the basis of a new religion. He works in the tower of an abandoned house and from here he looks out over the city. But it's within the house – in a locked room - that he finds letters and photographs which suggest that there is a mystery attached to the death of the previous owner.

With many a nod to Great Expectations Zafon takes us on a Gothic romp though the city and revisits the Cemetery of Forgotten Books (that wonderful labyrinth where books seem to chose their readers) and Sempere and Sons, booksellers – with a couple of near-death experiences thrown in for good measure and the seemingly unattainable girl. But don't be misled into thinking that this is a reworking of Great Expectations or indeed Jane Eyre or The Picture of Dorian Grey both of which also get a nod. This is an individual story about books and secrets and the shadows which surround David's home.

As in Shadow it's the city of Barcelona which plays as big a big part in the story as the characters despite the fact that this is a novel about identity. The first part of the book is heavy with exposition and I couldn't help but think that the plot was perhaps too intricate but equally not strong enough to bear the weight of the philosophising. In contrast to Shadow there are more supernatural elements – if these appeal to you then you might well enjoy the book more than I did. For me the combination of supernatural horror, detective story and romance was a genre too far. That, I suspect, is my loss.

The writing, though, is luminous and Zafon has lost none of his skills. I read passages and reread them for the pleasure they gave. The characters come off the page from the obsessive and driven David to the distant, but occasionally passionate Cristina. Barcelona is superb – Zafon captures not just the place and the buildings but the indefinable atmosphere of the old city. Read this book first – then read Shadow of the Wind and I suspect that you will get the best out of both.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

The themes are different, the time is different but we suspect that if this book appeals to you then you might also enjoy Little Gods by Anna Richards.

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