The Angel’s Game (2008) – Book Review

This review may contain SPOILERS for The Angel’s Game & The Shadow of the Wind – read on at your own discretion.


“Thetumblr_mn8n1hetp91rsh471o1_500 only way you can truly get to know an author is through the trail of ink he leaves behind him. The person you think you see is only an empty character: truth is always hidden in fiction.”

If you’ve read my review of The Shadow of the Wind, to which The Angel’s Game serves as a prequel sequel, you will know I loved it. It was, thus, with great expectations (pun intended, for those who have read the book) and much avid interest that I began reading Zafon’s follow up to it, The Angel’s Game.

Much has been said by writers and readers alike about the difficulty of living up to an initial success – the sequel curse, as we may call it, does indeed cast its shadow (no pun intended) over this addition to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books collection. Zafon himself was apparently aware of this (Interview in The Scotsman, June 2010). Nonetheless, it has its moments and is worth a read, even if it is not quite what one might hope for in a sequel to The Shadow of the Wind.

As with Shadow, this too is a book about books, about reading and the love of reading, about readers, writers and the imagination. Whilst Julian Carax’s eponymous novel (and Victor Hugo’s pen) were the literary inspirations for Shadow, here Great Expectations and Dickens are key leitmotifs.

The premise: Our narrator, David Martin, is a self-loathing writer of penny dreadfuls who longs to write something meaningful (He really should’ve met F Scott Fitzgerald; he might’ve learned that “you don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say”) . He works at a newspaper where he is initially under-appreciated by all except his benefactor and (for a brief time) literary role model Don Pedro Vidal. Things progress with minor plot details until Martin moves into an eerie gothic mansion and is diagnosed with what is implied to be a terminal brain tumour.

Soon after, he is approached by a mysterious (and putatively) Parisian publisher who offers him a deal all too reminiscent of a Faustian pact: Martin is to write a book creating a new religion for the publisher, Andreas Corelli, and in turn Corelli will ensure that Martin lives. The story is set against the backdrop of Barcelona – a city that Zafon brings to life with a menacing, enchanting presence of its own – gothic villas and asylums.

At first, the synopsis caught my interest, but soon after commencing the book I was disappointed by Zafon’s stylistic (or habitual?) repetitiveness.  Take, for starters, the glaring similarities between plot and character points in The Shadow of the Wind & The Angel’s Game:

  • A gifted writer, with a passion for books (and one who is redeemed/saved by books/reading), who grows up with a distant/ abusive father and absent mother (Julian Carax & David Martin – almost like reading about the same man)
  • An impossible/doomed love (Penelope & …surprisingly-forgettable-***wait-while-I-Google-her-name*** Cristina)
  • Fridged-Woman = Man Pain Trope: Aforementioned female characters
  • Tortured Artist Adored by a ‘Good’ Woman (but feelings not returned because said woman is not the impossible-yet-epic love of their existence) Trope: Nuria Montfort & Isabella
  • Spurned/ Thwarted Love Causes Writer to go on Self Destructive Path: Julian & the Lain Coubert issue & David and his Faustian pact, poor lifestyle, and general disregard for himself and those who love him
  • Whilst the supernatural themes were more subtle (or perhaps less prominently felt) in The Shadow of the Wind, they are more dominant/blatant in The Angel’s Game; but nonetheless, the image of a not-altogether-angelic angel is repeated (Zacharias and Andreas Corelli)
  • Zafon’s love of plot twists (The Lain Coubert Mystery & Carax’s fate; Martin as an unreliable narrator)

One might argue that these similarities are present because the books are part of the same series; essentially it is a continuation and an extension of the same story and the universe of that story. But this is no excuse for not fleshing out characters – especially the female characters. I’ve never been one to assume that male writers can’t write well-rounded female characters; or that female writers can’t write well-rounded male characters. Daphne Du Maurier writes brilliantly as a male protagonist in My Cousin Rachel; Agatha Christie does this well writing from the perspective of Arthur Hastings; Diana Wynne Jones (AMAZING writer) writes credible, fleshed out male protagonists. But Zafon’s female characters are all too often one dimensional or just not well thought out/developed.

We never really learn anything about Cristina – David’s love interest. Who is she as a person? What are her motivations? Why does she do what she does (at various points in the narrative)? What is it about her that David loves (honestly, here I am reminded of Swan Princess)?

In much the same way, we don’t really get any insight into Isabella either. She clearly has a crush on David initially, but what more is there to her? We don’t see her courtship with young Sempere, we never learn how she truly feels. We don’t see her directly interact with her parents. We don’t get to know why she wants to write, or what she aspires to write. We’re presented with a bubbly, supposedly headstrong yet also domesticated young woman and then it is abruptly revealed to us that Isabella has a history of deliberate self harm?!?

This is never referred to again and we learn nothing more of this – why did she self harm? What made her stop (or not)? Instead the only reference to this is from David’s perspective, re-emphasising my contention that Zafon’s females are always secondary to his male characters — mere props, plot devices to enhance the story of his male protagonists.

David Martin himself is not a particularly engaging narrator or protagonist. I found it difficult to connect to the character – the intensity of his emotions at certain points seemed absurd, given that there was little prior development of that particular plot element. He seems something of a spectator to his own life.

The most interesting characters – or rather the one’s that seem to have more interest-potential, given half a chance – are the one’s that receive least exposition (Vidal, Isabella, the whole cast of characters related to the Lux Aeterna mystery).

Another problematic element: we aren’t shown enough interactions between David and Andreas Corelli. For a Fauste-inspired story, this is disappointing. Much time is spent on exposition and the narrative is slow to take off. Too little time is spent on elements that could have been more interesting, and the ending is abrupt. Zafon’s ‘shock plot twist’ regarding David’s unreliability comes too late to be engrossing.

This is a bit tangential, but Zafon can’t claim that this is a plot twist and then choose to be wholly inconsistent. So, Andreas Corelli might either be the personification/avatar of Lucifer or a complex hallucination due to David’s brain tumour induced psychosis (which Zafon apparently wants to imply in the novel). Yet Corelli makes appearances in Zafon’s other works! Obviously, David and characters in other novels (whom David has never met) can’t share the same hallucination. Thus, if Corelli is an actual fallen angel, there is no drastic plot twist: David Martin ends up deeply ensnared in Corelli’s trap. (Short version: Zafon is claiming a plot twist/ narrator unreliability where there is none).

In spite of these issues, there are some positives:

  • The story is definitely gothic! Zafon brings Barcelona to life in much the same way that Dickens brought London to life, and Zafon writes gothic fiction well.
  • Beautiful writing, well translated. Just see the quote at the start of this review. Zafon can write eloquent, gorgeous prose for his readers to savour.
  • Apparently we learn more about David Martin in the third book, The Prisoner of Heaven.

In sum, whilst this book was not all I hoped, I do intend to read the third book in the series and see where things go.