The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon [review]

angels-gameShadowy benefactors, corrupt policemen, ghostly figures, tortured love: the elements that made Shadow of the Wind such a commercial success for Carlos Ruiz Zafon, make their return appearance in his prequel The Angel’s Game.

Zafon takes us once more on an adventure through the twisting streets of early-20th-century Barcelona where the fading grandeur of bourgeoisie homes mingle with Gaudí’s strange and surreal constructions and a maze of dark passages created in Roman and medieval times. The city’s back alleys, parks and cemeteries provide the perfect setting for a story of mystery, death and devilment. It’s the city’s darker side that the narrator David Martin has to navigate in order to save his life, win back the love of his life and solve the mystery of the abandoned tower in which he lives.

David is an unhappy soul. Robbed of his mother at an early age, he is raised by his illiterate, brutish drunkard father. The boy’s only joy is reading, particularly his favourite novel, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. David gets his own chance of betterment when he begins writing a weekly newspaper serial. His stories, written in ‘penny dreadful’ style, feature a glamorous murderess who kills with a kiss made deadly by her poison-impregnated.  Though readers love them, David is less than enthused. Nor does his mood improve when he gets a contract with some dubious publishers which requires him to produce a monthly pseudonymous series of books entitled “City of the Damned,” a pace of writing which brings him to the brink of exhaustion and a medical diagnosis of an incurable brain tumour.

The answer to his prayers may lie in an approach from Andreas Corelli, a suave and civilised man who describes himself as a publisher from Paris. He offers David a lucrative deal – 1000,000 French francs to write a sacred text that will create a new religion and a legion of believers.  As attractive as the money is, the stronger enticement for David is Corelli’s promise that in return for writing the book he will live. But who is Corelli? And what was his connection with Diego Marlasca a former lawyer who once owned David’s house but who died in mysterious circumstances. Is it simply a coincidence that Diego was also occupied in writing a book and his initials are also those of David’s?  The more David encounters Corelli, the more suspicious he becomes and the more convinced that he has made a pact with something evil. But then the sense of selling one’s soul goes is part and parcel of the writer’s life according to David.

A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood and the belief that if he succeeds in no letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal … and what he coverts most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.

What we get with The Angel’s Game is a spirited, fast moving adventure story full of the conventions of pulp fiction and the Gothic mystery.  It’s absurd in parts (David evades police, survives gun shots and almost near death from being thrown out of a funicular) but then it wouldn’t be an adventure story without those absurdities.  The narrative is also of patchy quality in places – cliched conversations between David and his lost love and tedious conversations between David and Corelli about the nature of belief and religion slow the pace down. The denouement also felt rushed with many elements and sub plots not completely resolved.

But for all that I enjoyed re-visiting the Cemetery of Forgotten Books – the secret labyrinth of texts by authors doomed never to be remembered. I loved the way Zufon made Barcelona seem almost a character in the novel, using very cinematic techniques. And I laughed at the tongue in cheek way he portrays the life of a writer.

“Normal people bring children into the world, we novelists brings books,’  says David at one point and then goes on to bemoan the consequences of that birth:

We are condemned to put our whole lives into them, even though they hardly ever thank us for it. We are condemned to die in their pages and sometimes even to let our books be the ones who, in the end, will take our lives.

I’m not aware of that many authors who have died because they’ve written a book but it would certainly make for an interesting ’cause of death’ in an inquest report.


The Book:  The Angel’s Game is part of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series which began with Shadow of the Wind.  The Angel’s Game was published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 2009. Translation from the Spanish is by Lucia Graves. 

The Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafon was best known in Spain as the author of young adult novels until Shadow of the Wind (his first adult novel). His newest novel The Labyrinth of the Spirits will be published in 2018. 

Why I read this: I bought this from a charity shop having enjoyed Shadow of the Wind in 2012  (see my review here). But I never got around to reading it until this month when I started digging into the shelves of my personal library in pursuit of one of my 2017 goals. 

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on January 22, 2017, in Book Reviews, Spanish authors, TBR list and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.

  1. After Shadow of the wind I had such high expectations for this but found myself disappointed. It wasn’t a bad book, I just didn’t like it as much as I wanted to.

  2. I really did enjoy this book – almost as much as Shadow of The Wind. So much so it’s one of the few books I can recall exactly where I was when I read it – in this case sitting by the pool of a villa in Crete which was undoubtedly the poshest house I’ve ever been in! Your review brought back happy memories – and when got Angels Game off shelf to check think there’s still faint odour of sun cream and chlorine!!

  3. I am reading The Shadow if the Wind right now! I’m only 150 pages in and so the only creepy element has been the abundance of crucifixes but that’s about it. I’m excited to see where it goes!
    Rebecca @ The Portsmouth Review
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  4. Great review. I am reading Shadow of the wind now and I hope to finish it this month. I have heard contradictory reviews on the series after the first book. I hope I will enjoy Shadow of the Wind. I have Angel’s Game on the shelf as well

  5. I have Shadows in the Wind on the TBR and really must get around to reading it soon!

    • Its a highly readable novel Cleo. In true adventure style its written so that you feel compelled to want to know what happens next. Of course you know all the time that its all hocus pocus but still you want to know how it turns out

  6. I love reading books set in places I’ve been, and Barcelona is one of the best:)

  7. Wonderful review! I read Shadow of the Wind before a trip to Barcelona. As well as giving me a different ‘way in’ to the locality from that dished out by all the guide books, I thoroughly enjoyed the whirlwind of adventure it took me on. I have The Angel’s Game on my shelves and I’m not sure why I’ve not yet read it. I think party it’s because Shadow was such an easy, engaging read, and what with the occasions when the plot becomes far-fetched, I’ll probably save it as the perfect holiday escapist reading.

  8. Like you I’ve had this one lurking for ages – I loved Shadow but I never picked this one up off the stacks, I don’t know why. Maybe I should soon!

    • I think I kept feeling I should read something more robust but then there are times when you just want to have fun reading and last week was one of those times.

  9. I read and enjoyed The Shadow of the Wind but never felt like reading any more of his books. This does sound good though.

    • I have a feeling that all three in the series are very similar in tone. It just suited my mood last week to pick this one up though I doubt I will read any more

  10. One of my favorite authors. I’ve read and enjoyed most of his books and always got lost in the adventures. When I last visited Barcelona, I was sure that famous bookstore was somewhere – if only I could find it.
    Thanks for the review.

  11. I’ve got this sitting on my shelf to read after enjoying the Shadow of the Wind. However it’s been so long since I read it, I suspect I’d have to go back and read it again to pick up the story. Mind you, that wouldn’t be a hardship as I’ve been to Barcelona since I read it, so it might have more relevance.

  12. A really good review and interesting reasons for reading it – I love reading reviews of books I’ve read and really loved and this gave me some new insights! x

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