The Shadow Of The Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s debut adult novel, became an overnight European success when it was published in 2001. Translated into English by Lucia Graves and published in the United States in 2004, the historical fantasy introduced readers to a cavernous Barcelona repository called the Cemetery Of Forgotten Books. There, a bookstore owner’s son becomes enthralled with the work of an author who seems to have left no trace in the outside world, and he ends up threatened by a force his investigations have disturbed.
Zafón’s latest novel, The Angel’s Game, is a prequel to Shadow Of The Wind. Like its predecessor, the book is a love letter to all things literary, and a paean to the power of the written word. Its hero, however, is far more culpable and problematic than the heroic yet frail boy who narrates Shadow. David Martín, an orphaned print-monkey, becomes a successful pulp novelist in early adulthood, churning out installments of supernatural suspense under a pseudonym, and wrecking his health in the process. A mysterious publisher with an angel lapel pin offers him a fortune to create a religion, and thinking that he’s on death’s door, Martin agrees. But as he searches for the links between the huge gothic mansion he rents (complete with mysterious deaths and hidden rooms) and the inexplicable powers of the publisher (who drives his lover mad and cures his cancer), Martin finds disturbing parallels between his life and that of the author of Lux Aeterna, the mad liturgy Martin finds in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.
Although Zafón remains as lyrical and clever as ever, The Angel’s Game doesn’t reach Shadow’s magical heights. Its vacillating narrator acts with muddled motivations whether he’s writing, playing passive-aggressive games with a teenager who wants to be his assistant, or trying to uncover the vast infernal conspiracy in which he’s unwittingly entangled. And the scope of the plot simply seems too large for Zafón to handle as deftly as he managed in his previous book. Rather than savoring every line and image, readers are likely to flip forward to get to the point where the mystery unravels—a crippling blow for a book whose charm needs to be found in the deep connection between words on a page and the depths of unseen realities. Yet Zafón is a storyteller with vast gifts, and his exotic version of Barcelona, with Gaudi’s strange towers beginning to transform the city into an alien landscape, remains an enthralling labyrinth designed for endless rambles.