I’m currently in the midst of reading Carlos Ruiz Zafón‘s Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. Following my reread of his beloved The Shadow of the Wind, I’ve now just finished the second book in the series, The Angel’s Game. While it has much in common with the first book, The Angel’s Game is also wholly unique, with new characters, a darker tone, and a more psychological journey. It’s not what I expected – but still amazing – and I’m intrigued to see where the remaining two books will take us.
The Angel’s Game follows an author named David Martín, set in Barcelona mostly around 1930. We get glimpses into his troubled childhood and difficult teen years, but the bulk of the story focuses on his life a decade into his writing career. Nearing 30, David has spent years churning out monthly novels as part of a scammy publishing deal. Overworked and in bad health, David learns that he doesn’t have much time left to live.
But then he’s given an incredible opportunity, one that would make him rich and extend his life. Is it too good to be true? Maybe. He’s to write a sort of religious text, and his boss is a mysterious, potentially dangerous man. But David doesn’t have many options, and so he takes the deal. It eventually leads him down a trail of questions and threats, and once the murders start piling up, David is sure he’s not safe.
The Angel’s Game is an intricate and dark novel, teetering between elements of fantasy and of mental illness. While it, like The Shadow of the Wind, shares a love of literature and some investigation into a mysterious author, it also cascades into new territory rich with secrets, danger, crime, and grief.
Going into this, I thought The Angel’s Game would be more similar to The Shadow of the Wind. At first it was: It had the young boy and his advancement through his teen years, and it showcased a love of books. It takes place some 25 years earlier, yet we still get to see the Sempere & Sons book shop and the formidable Cemetery of Forgotten Books. But from there, this became a surprising and original novel that truly stands on its own.
Whereas the former book was an ode to reading, The Angel’s Game highlights the authors behind the stories. David himself is a writer, and we get to see his desperate climb from a newspaper assistant to a low-level writer to a pulp fiction author. His work may not be considered high literature, but he’s prolific and gifted. Early on, we get to see how he writes and rewrites – both his own work and that of a friend. But we also see how an author’s name (and social standing) can spell the difference between success and failure, between praise and derision.
If that sounds like a darker turn, then wait until you see what else is in store.
The Angel’s Game looks at health – or lack thereof – quite a lot. David isn’t rich, and his contract forces him to work far more than is healthy. It’s painful to see how much he pushes himself, barely sleeping and living on coffee and cigarettes. It’s enough to convince anyone not to be a total workaholic. When David eventually does see a doctor, it’s bad news. But then the book takes a magical turn.
All of David’s interactions with his new boss, Andreas Corelli, take on the tone of something fantastical and sinister. Not just the instruction to essentially invent a new religion and write its theological text. Not just the evidence that Andreas Corelli may be dead or immortal. But even the strange power Andreas seems to have, from conjuring up impossible scenarios to eliminating terminal illnesses. Is this book a fantasy? Is it magical realism? Or is David just an extremely unreliable narrator?
As with The Shadow of The Wind, in this second book, David does end up investigating a previous author. But this time, the stakes are higher, because whatever happened to the author before may be happening to David. And if it leads the anything like what happened to the previous author, David could be in danger of being murdered.
Vaguely panicked, David spends a fair amount of time trying to get to the bottom of this puzzle. The book becomes more like the literary mystery we expected, but it also ends up having a higher body count. Maybe it’s a bit more like a thriller? Some twists and turns await, but the questions remain: Is David guilty? Is his boss guilty? Or is this some kind of set-up?
Romance weaves its way in, but it also veers towards the melancholic here. One thing I appreciate in The Angel’s Game – in contrast to a major con of the previous book – is that the love interests are fully developed characters. Cristina is David’s first love, and she’s intelligent and devoted, if prone to sadness. But both Cristina and the relationship they could have had are doomed. Their fallout is a significant source of David’s pain, but so is Cristina’s later breakdown. What happens between David and Cristina toward the end of the book is heavy and heart-wrenching, involving mental illness and loss. I was actually surprised with how dark the story got.
In contrast, David’s apprentice Isabella is a source of light. She and David have a fun relationship built on humorous conversations, but there’s also mutual dependency. Isabella certainly helps David, but he tries to help her, too. Though they start off dysfunctional and antagonistic, their friendship becomes one of the highlights of the book. (My only issue here is the romantic setup between Isabella and a certain book seller… it just seemed shoe-horned in and rather forced.)
Now let’s talk about our starring character. I love how sarcastic and unfriendly David can be. He’s certainly not the warmest character out there, but something about him was endearing, and I was always rooting for him. I felt sympathetic after seeing his difficult childhood and adolescence. His adulthood, with his overworking and series of personal and professional disappointments, furthered my pity. Even so, despite his frustration and occasional rudeness, I found him to be an interesting and nuanced character, and I always held out hope that he’d have a happy ending. But how happy that is remains open to interpretation… for now.
The Angel’s Game is a long and winding book through tunnels of depression, exhaustion, magic, and danger. I fully bought into the fantasy elements, but the final part of the book was a real shock for me. I won’t spoil anything here, but I felt several layers of surprise, confusion, and then a sort of misery.
Between The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, readers will encounter significant differences, but a love of books, a mystery surrounding authors, and a foggy Barcelona backdrop make them cohesive. This one is darker and heavier, and it may take some more time and effort. However, it also lacks the issues that brought down the first book, making it easier to like. All in all, I loved The Angel’s Game, even with an ending that still has me befuddled and vaguely sad.
I’m now halfway through the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. Stay tuned for my review of the final two books, The Prisoner of Heaven and The Labyrinth of the Spirits.
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