Book review: Thrilling ‘Angel’s Game’

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 24, 2009

“The Angel’s Game,” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Translated into English by Lucia Graves. Doubleday. 2009. 521 pp. $26.95.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
I love a book that completely engrosses me, whisking me away from reality into its imagined world, introducing characters who stay in my head for a long time.
“The Angel’s Game,” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, does just that.
A prequel to Zafon’s 2004 novel, “Shadow of the Wind,” this book delves into the same themes ó the presence of evil, a passion for words, passion for unattainable love, passion for finding the truth.
Add in Zafon’s fascination with lives mirroring others’ and fate’s inevitability, and you have a grand, Gothic mystery.
Zafon is a master of atmosphere, creating scenes of thick, hot summer days when the sun runs red and the streets turn into shades of amber, sepia and ochre.
In winter scenes, the cold sinks into your bones, the light is blue and white, the shadows darker than black.
He creates a moodiness with his settings to match the intensity of his characters in their search to be lost or to be found.
David Martin is hero of “The Angel’s Game,” a young man obsessed by a need to write and damaged by a tragic life. He begins at The Voice of Industry, a down-on-its-luck newspaper, where expectations are always for failure.
He surprises the typically irascible editor with a pot-boiler series of outrageous tales, “The Mysteries of Barcelona.”
The newspaper holds bitter memories for Martin ó his father, an angry man with little capacity for affection, worked there before he was murdered. Martin witnessed that death and only survived through the kindness of two men, his now patron, Pedro Vidal, and the bookseller Sempere.
Here’s the connection to “Shadow of the Wind.” Sempere’s grandson, Daniel, becomes the protagonist of the earlier novel.
Martin, reflecting Daniel, is addicted to words. Sempere’s kindness to him saves his life more than once ó but he cannot save his soul.
Like “Shadow of the Wind,” the plot is, as many reviewers have said, labyrinthine. Martin, like Daniel, obsesses over his quest. He wants to write his own novel, but ends up trapped in a contract with a disreputable publisher that demands penny dreadfuls. His “City of the Damned” series is wildly popular, but hardly great literature.
Then he and his other obsession, Cristina, together rewrite the tired novel by his patron, Pedro Vidal, a rich man who wants to be a famous author, but only creates drivel.
Cristina draws away from Martin, although she loves him. Instead, she feels she owes Don Pedro her love and loyalty for employing her and her father.
Tortured by his inability to write his work and armed with the knowledge he has a brain tumor, Martin has a bizarre encounter in an infamous brothel, and finds a business card bearing the name Andreas Corelli and an offer: “Life is filled with great expectations. When you are ready to make yours come true, get in touch with me. I’ll be waiting. Your friend and reader.”
Thus begins a relationship that will take everything dear to Martin and leave a blood-stained trail he cannot escape.
Evil appears impeccably dressed and unfailingly polite. Money is the lure, along with a chance to create something extraordinary. It’s hard to resist.
His task is to create a religion ó a mythology ó that will appeal to the masses. He must write the bible, if you will, of this new faith. He writes of a warrior god who relentlessly pursues non-believers, and an army of the faithful to defend the truth.
When the publishers of his penny dreadfuls die in a bizarre fire, death becomes a constant. He suspects he is not the only victim, and his pursuit of the truth, searching for the former owner of his seemingly cursed home and the author of a book from the Cemetery of Forgotten Books ó only brings more questions, violence and fear.The frightening downward spiral that results from his discoveries moves the book at an ever faster pace, drawing the reader into darkened streets, haunted homes and damaged souls. Martin is enveloped by the stinking smell of failure and despair.
His only escape is through Isabella, a young woman dreaming of being a writer and pushing herself on Martin as an assistant. Her strength and will keep Martin alive through his ordeals to his final escape.
For those willing to enter Zafon’s world and suspend disbelief at the myriad characters and coincidences and the relentless condemnation of fate, “The Angel’s Game”rewards them with a mystery of mysteries, a pulse-pounding pace and a surreal ending that leaves Zafon open to continue his stories, any way he wants.