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Amazon Exclusive: A Review of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s El Juego del Ángel (Angel's Game)

   Azafon_2   Zafon_3
   (The cover of the Spanish edition and the author.)

This week marks the official release of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's El Juego del Ángel in the United States. It's a follow-up to his international bestseller The Shadow of the Wind. As Amazon reported back in March, the novel had the highest initial printing for any novel published in Spain.

The catch? For now, it's only available in the author's native tongue, Spanish. With an English-language version just barely on the horizon, we turned to Larry Nolen to write a review based on his reading of an advance copy of the Spanish edition. Nolen divides his time between being an English and History teacher, engaging in amateur translations of Latin American authors, and operating a blog devoted to literature--a blog that was one of the first to provide any information about El Juego del Ángel in either language in the months leading up to its publication. Nolen, with both the review and the translation of two paragraphs from the novel, gives us limited creatures who don't read Spanish a tantalizing glimpse of the rich treasures to come. Visit Nolen's blog for English translations of two recent interviews with the author.

Angel's Game: A Review by Larry Nolen

A writer never forgets the first time that he accepts some money or praise in exchange for a story. He never forgets the first time that he feels the sweet venom of vanity in his blood, and he believes that if he manages that no one discovers his lack of talent the literary dream will be capable of placing a roof over his head, a hot plate for the end of the day and his deepest yearning: his name impressed on a miserable piece of paper which surely will survive longer than he. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is lost and his soul has a price.

This cautionary warning begins the highly anticipated follow-up to Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s bestselling novel, The Shadow of the Wind, El Juego del Ángel. Set in late 1920s Barcelona, this admonition regarding the writer’s dream of achieving an ersatz immortality and the price that he or she might have to pay for such a high ambition sets the tone for the story that follows.

David Martín is an aspiring writer who writes short pieces for a local newspaper, La Voz de la Industria. Young and ambitious, he is taken under the wing of Pedro Vidal, the newspaper's star writer. David soon finds himself wishing to emulate and then become greater than Vidal. He writes a pseudonymous novel, The City of the Damned, which draws the attention of a mysterious patron named Andreas Corelli. The novel, however, is not a success. Dismayed, David makes the further acquaintance of Isaac Sempere, the elder partner in the Sempere and Sons booksellers. Sempere, the grandfather to the protagonist in The Shadow of the Wind, introduces David to the labyrinthine Cemetery of Forgotten Books. David is told of its history and of the charge to its patrons of choosing one book to "adopt" and  bring back into a new existence. He chooses the book Lux Aeterna by someone bearing his initials of D.M.

From there, the story really begins to take off. Zafón’s prose is very descriptive, seeking to create vivid evocative scenes from such events as a fateful meeting between David and Corelli in which David agrees to a contract with him. However, agreeing to work for A.C. leads to horrific results. As in his previous novel, Zafón peppers the narrative with literary references, while the outlines of a tragic, horrific Faustian bargain story begin to emerge as a series of mysterious, deadly events strike closer and closer within David’s circle of friends and family. As in The Shadow of the Wind, the particular book chosen affects the latter half of the novel, leading to an action-packed denouement.

Fans of Zafón’s previous work will find much to love in El Juego del Ángel. Zafón has taken more time to explore character dynamics, while characters mentioned in passing in The Shadow of the Wind are fleshed out here. For those who never read the first book, El Juego del Ángel can exist independently, although a richer meaning can be gained from familiarity with the previous novel. The prose is more to the point in El Juego del Ángel, but without giving short shrift to the eloquent turns of phrases that Zafón employs to great effect in The Shadow of the Wind. The plot moves at a rapid clip, and readers will find themselves eager to experience the world that Zafón has created. As Corelli tells David:

All is a story, Martín. That which we believe, that which we know, that which we remember and including that which we dream. All is a story, a narration, a sequence of events and characters which communicate an emotional content. An act of faith is an act of acceptance, acceptance of a story which one tells us. We accept as truth only that which can be narrated.

Such stories have a power about them that drives readers to question, to explore, and to return again and again. I highly recommend El Juego del Ángel.

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I have read this book, and while I can agree with some of what has been postulated here, especially on the atmosphere and quality of the prose, I have to point out that an author has some minor obligation to create a complete work that explains itself and can be understood. Zafon fails to do this. We wait, and wait, and wait for the revelation, the deus ex machina that will pull together all the sinister glances, the hints, the red herrings, the plot twists, symbolic magical references, mysterious deaths. It never happens. Zafon created a wonderful world and a Byzantine plot - that in the end even he couldn't figure out. Monty Python at least used to resolve this problem honestly with a sixteen ton weight. Zafon produces sophistry. I loved this book until the end. Then I felt cheated. SLB

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