Monday, January 28, 2013

Book Review: The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is the third of a planned four-book series centered around the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. It follows the phenomenal (and phenomenally successful) The Shadow of the Wind and the equally gripping The Angel’s Game. In The Prisoner of Heaven we return to the familiar Sempere and Son’s Bookshop in Barcelona, and like the previous books the story is told in both the present and the past. For this novel, the present is 1957 (a few years after the events in The Shadow of the Wind) and the past is the early 1940s (just after the end of the events in The Angel’s Game).
In the first book the main character was Daniel Sempere, and in the second it was David Martin. What makes The Prisoner of Heaven stand out besides Zafon's signature Gothic atmosphere and a tightly woven plot is that this book focuses on perhaps his greatest character: Fermin Romero de Torres. A crucial but supporting character prior to this (and perhaps the best literary sidekick since Sancho Panza), here Fermin grabs center stage and never relinquishes it.
The story opens with Fermin preparing for his wedding when a mysterious figure from his past arrives at the Sempere and Sons Bookshop threatening to reveal a decades-old secret that could destroy Fermin’s world. He and Daniel embark on a search for this stranger, and in the process Fermin finally reveals what happened to him just after the end of the Spanish Civil War, as well as things about Daniel’s own family that set the stage for the much-anticipated final volume in the series.
On numerous occasions Zafon has said that he never set out to write a sequential series, but one that can be entered and experienced at any point in the story, starting with any of the books. In theory this is true; anyone who has not read the earlier novels and begins with The Prisoner of Heaven will find that it easily stands on its own merits. But moving to the earlier books after this one will certainly not be as satisfying. This is particularly true of The Angel’s Game, which while a classic in its own right makes more sense and is a stronger story in light of the revelations found in The Prisoner of Heaven. Best to read the books in the order Zafon wrote them, because while they can stand alone, each one builds upon its predecessor.
At 380 pages, The Prisoner of Heaven is a much shorter work than either The Shadow of the Wind or The Angel’s Game, but its relative brevity in no way detracts from the story. And it leaves readers who have been enchanted by Zafon’s magical world for nearly a decade both impatient for the final installment and sad that the end of the tale is finally in sight.

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