Monday, June 15, 2009

The Angel's Game: It's at your own expense

It's Great Expectations! It's Faust! It's a whole slew of other books and then it's Dorian Gray! It's the encore to the enormously popular The Shadow of the Wind, that's what The Angel's Game is, and I haven't had the refrain "This is stupid" running through my mind so many times since The Da Vinci Code. Not that I think author Carlos Ruiz Zafon is at all stupid, he's obviously exceedingly clever and well-read. But when the smart stuff in a book is only a McGuffinly means of getting the sensationalistic hoohah in motion, then I know someone's jerking me around instead of giving me anything meaningful. And I resent it. There's no reason for postmodernism to devolve into a mere amusement park ride if the reader's expectations have been raised to expect something more. Shouldn't a book that's so blatantly bookish do more than bombard us with thrills and chills?

Pip, er, David Martin starts out writing serialized melodramas for the newspaper in Barcelona at the age of 17. His father, an uneducated war veteran, had been the night watchman there before he was gunned down in the street outside the newspaper office's doors. Martin continues working there, as a gofer and an assistant to the owner's son, Don Pedro Vidal, a writer of thrillers himself, before Vidal encourages the editor to give his fiction a chance. Martin's work is so popular that his co-workers scorn him and Vidal then conspires to have him fired so that he can sign a contract to write penny dreadfuls under a pen name for a pair of unscrupulous publishers.

Martin is in love with Cristina, who convinces Martin to rewrite one of Vidal's manuscripts behind his back after Vidal's talent deserts him. Cristina then marries Vidal after the book is published to high regard and popular success. A serious novel Martin publishes under his own name fails, and he buries a copy in the Cemetery of Lost Books. And a doctor confirms that Martin's ill health and headaches are caused by a brain tumor that will kill him within a year. . .

And then Martin enters into a real contract with the devil instead of a mere metaphoric one with the greedy publishers, a contract that offers him riches and eternal life in exchange for writing a book that will create a religion, "a story for which men and women would live and die," and takes on a delightful young assistant named Isabella.

I am at the height of my liking the novel at this point because of all the witty dialogue and religious and writing discussions, and if Ruiz Zafon had continued in this vein I would have thought the book fabulous. Instead, after that enjoyable interlude, the book underscores again and again that it's a mystery/thriller, my "This is stupid" mental refrain kicks into high gear, and I spend the last two hours of reading wishing I were watching a movie so that I could take an extended pop corn/restroom break at the beginning of a chase scene and come back to my seat to have my daughter whisper, "You didn't miss a thing."

My reading tastes are outside the mainstream enough for me to realize that The Angel's Game is going to be as hugely successful as the novel Martin rewrote for Vidal turned out to be, but I regret spending my time on the latest Faustian fare when I could have been reading Mann's version or The Master and Margarita. I won't go so far as to say I sold my soul for an advanced reading copy, but I certainly could have made better use of my time.


  1. And to think that I am awaiting the publication of this book (in English) more than anything else. Maybe it's the "sophomore slump" and he's able to come back full force with book three.

  2. You know, I'd wondered if all the unanswered questions I had at the end were simply because I'd not read The Shadow of the Wind, but I've come across the review of someone who's read both and she was bothered with the loose ends as well. Maybe he's holding back until book three (or book four).

    And it could well be I'm just NOT the proper audience for an atmospheric gothic novel of this type.

  3. I have not had a chance to read this one yet. Too many other, I'd prefer right now. Enjoyed reading your review though; thanks

  4. I did read The Shadow of the Wind and was rather disappointed by it. The first half was very engrossing and I thought I was in for a great read, but the second half was spoilt by lots of bad melodrama and an ending that was far too neat. Actually, that's about all I remember about the book now. No more Carlos Ruiz Zafon for me, therefore.

  5. If I'd writen about The Shadow of the Wind, it would've sounded like your review of this book. I hated that book so much – anger drove me to read the end of it. It's one of the most overrated pieces of crap I ever came across! And with a plot hole nobody seemed to notice.

    But! I also just finished reading The Angel's Game (I can't explain why I even accepted an ARC), but I found it thoroughly entertaining — maybe because I had such low expectations of it. All those deaths were a bit much, but I like the ambiguity in the ending. But then, I actually enjoyed the DaVinci Code. (Although, the Master & Margarita is way better!)

  6. I'm slightly over half-way through the book. I checked it out of the library because I liked the cover art, it was set in Barcelona, and I hoped it would be like John Dunning's Bookman series.

    I have not read The Shadow of the Wind, so perhaps I'm missing a lot, but so far I'm finding it adequate summer fare - not deep, but like a summer adventure movie you watch, but never watch again. I have no expectations of this ever being considered a classic.

    Thanks for the review!

  7. I actually rather enjoyed this, although I agree with you that the first half is better than the last half. It is, as you say, mostly just a thrill ride, but as a thrill ride, it delivers, and with some intelligence to boot.


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