Book Book Book Book
Commentary Commentary RSS Reviews Podcasts_Audio Podcasts RSS Blog Links Archives Indexes
Carlos Ruiz Zafón
The Angel's Game
Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2009

Doubleday / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-385-52870-2
Publication Date: 06-16-2009
531 Pages; $26.95
Date Reviewed: 06-29-2009

Index: General Fiction, Horror, Fantasy, Mystery

When we open up a book and lay our eyes on the first page, we're making a deal with the writer. You give us, your readers, an adventure, we think, and we'll give you something far more valuable — our attention. It's a deal that either party can break with a single word. No matter what sort of book we've picked up; a romance, a thriller, a mystery, a biography, fiction, non-fiction, we do so because we want the author to give us a new memory. Once struck, this bargain cannot be denied.

Writers make a bargain as well, to write and get paid for it. Every time they do so, they’re taking their soul into their hands, and in '
The Angel's Game' by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, the publisher may be the devil himself. It's a Faustian bargain from the first word on, and like reading — this novel in particular — it is irresistible.

Zafón's novel begins as young David Martín, an apprentice at a newspaper who moonlights writing lurid fiction for his own pleasure, is given the chance of a lifetime. The back page of the paper is empty, his publisher tells him. This is your chance to fill it with your best shot. Go.

And they both go, Martín and Zafón, both on to create intense, memorable, complex epics of love, betrayal, crime, writing and passion. 'The Angel's Game' is every bit as good as 'The Shadow of the Wind,' with much of what made that novel so wonderful. Zafón offers the reader romance, invention, a striking vision of Barcelona vividly rendered as if it were a smoking behemoth in a Victorian penny dreadful. But unlike 'The Shadow of the Wind,' 'The Angel's Game' is primarily concerned with a writer and writing, as opposed to a reader and reading. There's plenty of reading here, for what writer does not read? But the focus is on David Martín and the deal he has made with a man who may be Lucifer, or at least, the creature which gave birth to the written legend of the devil.

Prepare to fall in love as the characters in 'The Angel's Game' fall in love, with one another and with their destinies. David Martín is as close to a Dickensian orphan as your going to find outside of Dickens, and he has an appropriate benefactor, Pedro Vidal. Vidal is himself a writer, but not a very good one, and he recognizes that David has both the talent and the drive to make that talent count. There are girls who become women, and David, who begins as a boy, becomes a man. Zafón has an incredible gift for creating a vast array of characters we know and care about. Everyone we meet is someone we look forward to meeting again.

'The Angel's Game' is an intricately conceived and plotted novel, full of stories within stories. Zafón is fond of using stories that loop back on themselves and he pulls together disparate plot strands with an amazing ease. There's quite a bit of tension here but not in any simple chase-plot scheme. No, Zafón generates tension out of character interplay and in the slow but utterly entertaining unraveling of everyone's stories. It's simply amazing that his work is so compelling in the absence of the usual cheesy plot elements. It's really a joy for readers to once again experience characters whose lives we truly care about.

Much credit for all of what you read is to be given to both Zafón and Lucia Graves, his translator for the rich, vivid prose. Everything about 'The Angel's Game' is totally immersive. The city of Barcelona, itself a character, is back again, just as dangerous, just as beautiful as before. From the Tower House where David makes an ill-advised choice to live to a lawyer's estate house, rundown in disrepair with a pool that you'll not forget, Zafón evokes a Barcelona that is filled with the stuff of life. But just as important is the wonderful dialogue, which is both funny and incisive.

While Zafón at heart provides a purely pleasurable reading experience, he does so not just with a great intricate plot and vividly drawn characters. One of most enjoyable aspects of 'The Angel's Game' is Zafón's ability to weave in anachronistic concepts into his historical narrative. Our genetic predisposition to believe in religious concepts gets a great workout here in terms that are period perfect but telling as hell to the modern reader. All manner of big ideas make their way through this wonderful ocean of words, but in a manner so that readers may enjoy them as part of the entertainment, rather than as a lecture. Zafón permits and encourages you to think so far as it is utterly enjoyable.

Zafón also does interesting things with the concept of a literary series. Those who read 'The Shadow of the Wind' will find this book, a prequel if anything, an illuminating experience. The connections between the two are crafty and unique. You could read the two books in any order, but I think you're best advised to go with 'The Shadow of the Wind' first. And finally, the publishers themselves are to be commended for the fine book design. The interior and exterior of 'The Angel's Game' make it particularly rewarding for those who like a good book to be a good looking book. Looks matter, actually, but they're not a deal-breaker. 'The Angel's Game' makes a promise — and keeps it.

New to the Agony Column

08-08-11: Commentary : Simon Rich Wishes For 'Elliot Allagash' : The Unbottled Genie

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2011 Interview with Simon Rich : "My goal as a writer, more than anything is just to write something that people will finish voluntarily."

08-03-11: Commentary : Scott Simon Knows 'Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other' : The Family We Choose

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2011 Interview with Scott Simon : "...then of course, our kids will be there too, and that's going to change everything."

08-02-11: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 4: Mark Seal : The Man in the Rockefeller Suit

08-01-11: Commentary : Glen Duncan Transforms 'The Last Werewolf' : The Literature of Ennui

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2011 Interview With Glen Duncan and Stephen Coates : "I try and imagine what it would be like to be that person in that situation."

07-28-11: Commentary : Bruce Duffy Proclaims 'Disaster was My God' : Seasoned in Hell

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Five Books With Alan Cheuse : The Lotus Singers edited by Trevor Carolan, Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs, Edited by Helen Mitsios, Disaster Was My God, by Bruce Duffy, Triple Crossing by Sebastian Rotella and We All Fall Down by Michael Harvey

07-27-11: Commentary : Arielle Eckstutt and David Henry Sterry write 'The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How to Write It, Sell It, and Market It . . . Successfully' : Swiss Army Knife for Would-Be Writers

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2011 Interview with Arielle Eckstutt and David Henry Sterry : "Can we use that?"

07-26-11: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Time to Read Episode 3: David Eagleman : Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

07-25-11: Commentary : Mark Seal Meets 'The Man in the Rockefeller Suit' : Unmistaken Identity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2011 Interview with Mark Seal : "He said he was the producer and director of a new TV series called Alfred Hitchcock Presents."

07-21-11: Commentary : 'Song of Slaves in the Desert' by Alan Cheuse : Voices, Stories and Songs

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Alan Cheuse Live at Capitola Book Café, July 9, 2011 : "..if any of you have ever spent any time in academia, you can imagine what this meant..."

07-18-11: Commentary : David Eagleman Goes 'Incognito' : Dethronement

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2011 Interview with David Eagleman : "Turns out holding secrets can be bad for you."

07-15-11: Commentary : David Darlington Searches for 'An Ideal Wine' : One Generation's Pursuit of Perfection — and Profit — in California

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2011 Phone Interview with David Darlington : "...the fact that so many wineries mouth this catechism while behind the scenes they are doing something completely different..."

07-13-11: Commentary : Joe R. Lansdale's 'Crucified Dreams' : Urbane Extreme

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Howard V. Hendrix Interviewed at SF in SF on May 9, 2011 : "We're going to bring in people from all different menus who have talked about Mars."

07-12-11: Agony Column Podcast News Report Update : Time to Read, Episode 2 : Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts

07-11-11: Commentary : Erik Larson Roams 'In the Garden of Beasts' : Innocents in Evil

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2011 Interview with Erik Larson : "'s this innocent, being thrown into this cauldron..."

07-06-11: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Podcast Update: Time to Read, Episode 1 : Donald Ray Pollock, The Devil All the Time

07-06-11: Commentary : Ben Loory Writes 'Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day' : Wonder Harder

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Two Books With Alan Cheuse : "In this regard, I'm really about eleven or twelve years old..."

07-04-11: Commentary : Donald Ray Pollock Sees 'The Devil All the Time' : Flaying Americana

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2011 Interview with Donald Ray Pollock :"You need some trouble, you know, for the book to be interesting. I may go a little overboard on the trouble."

06-30-11: Commentary : Melissa Marr Minds the 'Graveminder' : Tending to the Dead

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2011 Interview with Melissa Marr :"Everyone knows everyone's business."

Commentary & Podcast Archive

Archives Indexes How to use the Agony Column Contact Us About Us