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Anyone first introduced to the impassioned prose of Carlos Ruiz Zafón through his international bestseller, The Shadow of the Wind, will find it difficult to avoid comparing it to any follow-up to the novel. Where Zafón’s The Angel’s Game is concerned, that is both a good thing and a not-so-good thing. It is also inevitable because page by page and chapter by chapter, we come to realize there’s a reason the novel is set in the same city, Barcelona, as The Shadow of the Wind, but an entire two decades ahead of it. That reason does not become completely clear until you are able to compare some very specific details on page one of The Shadow of the Wind with corresponding details toward the end of The Angel’s Game (the results of which readers can discover for themselves). If all this sounds slyly amorphous and irresistibly intriguing, that’s because Zafón specializes in literary puzzles and mazes, and The Angel’s Game is an exceptional one.
It’s easy to see the many ways that The Angel’s Game extends the author’s masterful use of the labyrinth as a symbolic metaphor but at the same time the novel is a very different one that abandons the kind of tightly constructed plot line applied in the previous book. Whereas the beginning of The Shadow of the Wind introduces readers to what is clearly an historical mystery in the classic mode that teases and beguiles with every new development, The Angel’s Game starts out more like a literary memoir: “A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story.” Such an observation will invite many writers to nod in agreement, and prompt readers to sigh with romantic notions about what it means to be a writer. It hardly seems like a strong enough foundation upon which to build a serious novel of nearly 500 pages. However, it soon enough becomes clear that The Angel’s Game is indeed a kind of mystery that dissects the life and career of one David Martin, steering readers through the turbulence of his youth, the precariousness of his creative genius, and the uncertain motives of the people who populate his life.
A survivor of childhood trauma and abandonment, David grows up as the ward of a newspaper called The Voice of Industry; and, as the chosen protégé of a philanthropist named Pedro Vidal. He receives his “first crack at glory” when the newspaper is on its way to press and the editor discovers he’s short of an entire page of copy, providing David the opportunity to produce his first published story on the spot and launch his literary career in dramatic fashion. The launch successfully establishes David as the writer of a newspaper fiction series called The Mysteries of Barcelona, then later as the author of a series of “penny dreadfuls” (once known in the U.S. as “dimestore novels”) called City of the Damned. For the latter, he is required to write under the name “Ignatius B. Samson,” which he considers “a small price to pay for being able to make a living from the profession I had always dreamed of practicing.”
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Of all the shifting benevolent and sinister characters in The Angel’s Game, none are more baffling than the mysterious Andreas Corelli, “a gentleman with black, shining eyes that seemed too big for his face,” and who inspires both hope and fear. Ostensibly, Corelli appears to be an eccentric publisher and philanthropist out to entice David to write a masterpiece of religious fiction called Lux Aeterna. But he is clearly much more than that. David’s first communication with him comes in the form of an invitation to accept “a little surprise” that turns out to be a sexual encounter with a ghost rather than an actual meeting with Corelli. Eventually the two do meet and enter into an agreement that changes, or possibly confirms, the course of David’s life.
The big question, however, is exactly who and what is Andreas Corelli? Is he the angel of the novel’s title who has come to liberate David from the soul-numbing agony of writing books he doesn’t believe in for the sake of earning money to stay alive? Or is he something closer to a demon intent on corrupting David’s talent for some malevolent purpose? Could it even be that he is neither of these but a manifestation of David’s own madness creating the kind of exalted literary intrigue and drama that he has not been allowed to publish as a would-be serious author? From David’s love for Christina to his obsession with the mystery surrounding the reported death of prominent Barcelona lawyer Don Diego Marlasca, all roads seem to twist and turn and lead back to Corelli.
The Angel’s Game is in fact a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind. It is, like its predecessor, a major homage to books and at the same time a mesmerizing metaphysical mystery. Just how deeply passionate Zafón is about books and what they have contributed to civilization over the centuries may be summed up in this passage from the eulogy for the owner of the Sempere and Sons bookshop: “Seňor Sempere believed that God lives, to a smaller or greater extent, in books, and this is why he devoted his life to sharing them, to protecting them and making sure their pages, like our memories and our desires, are never lost. He believed, and he made me believe it too, that as long as there is one person left in the world who is capable of reading them and experiencing them, a small piece of God, or of life, will remain.”