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The Angel’s Game October 26, 2009

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.
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Ask me to recommend a work of fiction and nine times out of ten my answer will be Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind. I was quite taken by it, expecting at first a tale of fantasy (how could I not, with a “cemetery of forgotten books” and all?) only to be presently surprised by a story more akin to a thriller about an enigmatic author named Julian Carax and one Daniel Sempere’s attempt to unearth that mysterious writer’s past. Because of Ruiz Zafon’s knack for literary smoke and mirrors, not to mention the way he romanticizes postwar Barcelona throughout the novel, Shadow of the Wind remains to this day the only book I’ve ever been compelled to read from cover to cover in one sitting.

Hence, it’s neither difficult to imagine how high my expectations were for Ruiz Zafon’s follow-on offering, The Angel’s Game, nor how disappointed I felt that the book didn’t live up to them.

To be fair, coming into a book — or anything, for that matter — expecting so much is an experience that can’t possibly end well. On that score, I did find The Angel’s Game a page-turner; not because I was so engrossed in the story and couldn’t wait to see what happens next but because I was just waiting to find the same qualities in the novel that so enamored me of Shadow of the Wind. Perhaps I would’ve been better served had I approached the book as an entirely new experience, as if it were uncharted territory just waiting to be discovered.

Except that everything I was looking for — the drama, mystey and suspense woven around a superb period piece — was there, but only in glimpses, drip fed in doses too weak for me to enjoy.

Ironically, what I liked least about The Angel’s Game was how it came across as fantasy masquerading as a thriller. The eponymous “game” that Ruiz Zafon’s protagonist David Martin plays — whereby he ultimately sells his soul to become a prolific writer — was too steeped in the unlikely and impossible for another almost-period piece. No doubt, it’s an appealing premise conceptually, and up until the point where Martin is commissioned by his seemingly ageless “Angel” the book had my attention. Thereafter, however, I found the events that unfolded in Martin’s life and his transformation until the novel’s conclusion a bit of a stretch, especially for what turned out to be a prequel, if only tangentially, for Shadow of the Wind.

That said, I do envy the person who first discovers Ruiz Zafon’s work through The Angel’s Game and thereafter with Shadow of the Wind. To see the broader tableau of the author’s vision unfold in that manner and hit its crescendo as it should is to be treated to quite an experience. For my part, I wax philosophical. Maybe it is unfair to judge an author’s new work against a previous one that is, for all intents and purposes, exceptional. Maybe it isn’t even healthy to expect the newer addition to capture all those qualities in the earlier installment that made such an impression. But hey, a guy can hope.

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