Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Angel's Game: A Review

The success of a book can be a very strange thing. Some books are huge bestsellers but are written quite poorly, while others are critically acclaimed yet sell very few copies. And there are some that achieve a cult following, sometimes years after the author's death.

It is extremely rare, however, for a novel to be critically acclaimed, an international bestseller and a cult classic. Carlos Ruiz Zafon accomplished this literary hat trick with his novel The Shadow of the Wind. Released in Spanish in 2001, and translated into English in 2004, The Shadow of the Wind has been universally praised by critics around the globe and has sold 12 million copies worldwide. As for the cult following, it is one of those books you'll buy several times a year because you keep giving your copy away to friends.

Success, however, can be a writer's worst enemy, and huge global success even more so. For years now, the question has been when the second book would arrive and whether there was any way it could live up to the bar set by The Shadow of the Wind. We now have the answer to both.

First released in Spanish in 2008 as El juego del angel, the new novel is universally acclaimed by critics across Europe. It has already sold 1.6 million copies in Spain and has been a #1 bestseller in Spain, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Norway, and several Latin American countries. The English translation of The Angel's Game was be released in the US in June 2009, and the trade paperback version came out earlier this year. Without a doubt, The Angel's Game was worth the five-year wait.

The Angel's Game is the story of David Martin, a young Barcelona author with a troubled past who writes crime novels under a pseudonym. As he struggles with his love for a woman he cannot have, he also realizes that his talent has been sold to the highest (in fact only) bidder, and despair overtakes him. As he nears the edge of the abyss, he receives a surprising and lucrative offer from a mysterious French publisher to write a book that will change people's lives forever. He accepts the offer, only to learn that his new situation is far more deadly than the first.

Although Zafon has said that the book is not a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind (even though it is set in Barcelona only two decades earlier and brings back a few of the same characters), his website describes it in this way:

"Set in the turbulent 1920s, The Angel's Game takes us back to the Gothic universe of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, the Sempere & Son bookshop, and the winding streets of Barcelona's old quarter, in a masterful tale about the magic of books and the darkest corners of the human soul."

This may be the best description, because at their heart, The Angel's Game and Shadow of the Wind share far more than locale, a few characters, and the amazing Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Both are, as one reviewer said about the earlier novel, "love letters to books." Both examine the power of books to change our lives in ways we often don't even realize. One quote that appears in both novels sums this up:

"Every book has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens."

This is not something we often consider in our digital, Internet-driven world, yet every so often a book comes along that stays with you long after you've finished reading it. You almost come to think of the characters as real people, and miss them when they are gone. These books challenge us to examine our inner selves and the world around us, and they can change us, hopefully for the better, while at the same time being a contract of sorts between writer and reader. The Shadow of the Wind was such a book, and The Angel's Game is as well. When I finished reading the advance copy of The Angel's Game, I found myself wishing it had gone on for 500 more pages, and hoping that the next novel doesn't take Zafon five years to write.

This is a novel with a very strong soul, and books like this don't come around nearly often enough. You should relish it, and then share it with everyone you know.

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