The Angel’s Game review

angelsgameThe Angel’s Game
Carlos Ruiz Zafón (trans. by Lucia Graves)
$26.95, hardback, 464 pages
Release date: June 16, 2009


In The Angel’s Game, Carlos Ruiz Zafón envelops the reader in a world full of mysterious characters and complicated plot twists. Zafón’s gift of creating fully realized characters and settings overcome the at-times confusing plot. The reader is content to let 1920s Barcelona wash over him as he accompanies David Martin, the main character, on a Dickensian journey.

The Angel’s Game is a follow up to Zafón’s first novel, The Shadow of the Wind, and takes a step further into the world of magic realism at which Shadow hinted. Where the events in Shadow could be explained through a series of almost implausible coincidences, The Angel’s Game’s plot depends on what can only be explained by a touch of supernatural. A brothel that turns out in the morning’s light to be a long abandoned building with no sign of life. Questions of reincarnation and time loops. Echoes of The Cask of Amontillado.

The through line of the novel appears simple on its surface: after success writing penny dreadfuls, David is commissioned to write a book by a strange Parisian publisher and discovers the cost of literary fame. Not far below this surface is a complex, dizzying maze. Characters are not always what or who they seem to be at first or third glance. Plot threads which appear innocuous when first introduced become central to the novel.

Even the long lectures about the nature of faith, dogma and the origin of belief by David’s new publisher seem to hold clues to the obsession that overtakes David as he struggles with completing the commission. David is never sure who his employer really is or who employs his employer. Neither is the reader, although sinister hints continue to grow as both David’s and Zafón’s books progress.

The trick with making magic realism work for the reader lies introducing the unexplainable without crossing into the fantastic. Zafón pulls off this balancing act seamlessly. The Angel’s Game never comes close to becoming a fantasy novel; the supernatural elements may have an explanation, but David can’t find one and Zafón doesn’t offer one.

Readers looking for ties to Shadow won’t be disappointed. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books is more important to The Angel’s Game than in Zafón’s first book. David Martin is good friends with characters readers already know from the earlier book. And the atmosphere of David’s tower house will remind readers of the Aldaya mansion.

Some other similarities threaten to make The Angel’s Game nothing more than a pale retelling of Shadow — both main characters have lost their mothers and are in love with women whose first names begin with “C” and who don’t return their affections, for example — but as Zafón picks up the pace, the similarities are covered by each additional layer of the story.

Not all of the novel’s questions are answered, but most readers will not mind as The Angel’s Game  provides such a richly textured world it is easy to believe it is reality, where answers aren’t guaranteed.


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