Rating:The Angel’s Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Anchor Books (2010), 531 pages.
Blech. What a relief to be done with this. And what an unexpected turn of events, given that the first third of the book was quite enjoyable. As good as Shadow of the Wind! I said to myself. He’s done it again! But no, he has not done it again. Except in the sense that the setting is identical: a dark and gothic early-twentieth-century Barcelona. Even some of the characters from Shadow of the Wind are here, as is the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. So he did do that part again.
The parallels between the two books were not bothersome, because as every reader of Shadow knows, Zafón is thoroughly brilliant at dark and olden-days Barcelona, so why shouldn’t he revisit it? It’s not as though other authors are doing the same and the market is saturated with mysterious and sinister Barcelonian dealings. So I was quite happy to visit again and only became disenchanted when it became clear that the writing in The Angel’s Game simply isn’t as good.
The main character, David, is an author squandering his talents on mass-market thrillers: “penny dreadfuls packed with intrigue, high society murders, countless underworld horrors, illicit love affairs featuring cruel, lantern-jawed landowners and damsels with unmentionable desires, and all sorts of twisted family sagas with plots as thick and murky as the water in the port.” We, the readers, are meant to understand that David is actually a literary genius, trapped into writing these books for the money but actually able to turn out works of brilliance when inspired. It’s funny, because David’s a lot like Zafón—an author who proved his literary gifts beyond all doubts with his first book for adults (he previously wrote four YA novels that I have not read) but flounders here in the depths of extreme melodrama featuring ridiculous heroines, over-the-top murders, and plot twists too silly to take seriously.
Is this some kind of joke? Is Zafón trying to admit, through an alter ego named David, that he has intentionally written a “penny dreadful” to make some quick cash?
EXCERPT (from the first, readable third):
The whole of Barcelona stretched out at my feet and I wanted to believe that when I opened those windows—my new windows—each evening its streets would whisper stories to me, secrets in my ear, that I could catch on paper and narrate to whomever cared to listen. Videl had his exuberant and stately ivory tower in the most elegant and elevated part of Pedralbes, surrounded by hills, trees, and fairy-tale skies. I would have my sinister tower rising above the oldest, darkest streets of the city, surrounded by the miasmas and shadows of that necropolis which poets and murderers had once called the “Rose of Fire.”
EXCERPT (from the last, unreadable third):
I raised the weapon and pointed it at his face. The sheen of the metal gave me away. Marcos jumped at me, knocking down the dummies and dodging the shot. I felt his weight on my body and his breath on my face. The scissor blades closed only a centimeter from my left eye. I butted my forehead against his face with all my remaining strength and he fell to one side. Then I lifted my gun and pointed it at him. Marcos, his lip split, sat up and fixed his eyes on mine.
“You don’t have the guts,” he whispered.
He placed his hand on the barrel and smiled at me.
Agree completely with the review. This book is so eminently forgettable, that in fact, until I saw the book cover on your website, I had actually forgotten that I’d read it. I wish you hadn’t reminded me, because now I realize how much time I wasted reading it, in perpetual hope of finding some redeeming feature. But, as they say in Afrikaans – niks nie. (=nada, nothing, not a scrap, not a scrap of a scrap, one large fat zero!). But Donna, please, when a book is as bad as this, one star is more than enough; that star earned not by the writing nor the story, but by the only saving grace of the book, ie, being set in Barcelona. Without this, no stars would be enough. There’s a tendency in the US to overmark, ie, give higher marks than due. For example, students feel cheated, in fact, feel they have the right to complain if they’re given less than a B; this is a consequence of the much vaunted – but failed – movement to build self-esteem by telling people they’re better than they are. As a result of this highly misguided approach, all kinds of people who shouldn’t have high esteem, in fact do, eg societal misfits, sociopaths, bank robbers, burglars, etc – so studies have shown. So, please mark more stringently. You’ll be contributing to the greater good. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s self-esteem deserves to be dealt a blow for foisting this book upon us.
This might be the best & funniest reader comment of all time. Thanks!
I totally hear you about overmarking and its long-term damages. In fact, you won’t believe this but at the exact moment you were posting, I was grading a stack of papers from college freshmen in a Composition course I teach. I was agonizing over the fact that 7 of my 17 students received a D, and I was considering being less stringent. So your comment couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
And now here is an honest-to-god actual quote from a student paper:
“I think that grading people in the class to whose is best is bad because if I never win my creative self esteem would be low, we should just get points for trying.”
Her ‘creative self esteem’ would be low? Now what does that mean? For a student to expect to ‘get points trying’ is to expect to get points for breathing. (Patients in ICUs do, but that’s a horse of a different color – they’re near moribund; as it seems is the student you quote – intellectually moribund). Let me describe for you another type of student; one who told me that she wasn’t that proud of getting an A on a particular test because the professor teaching the class (3rd year university literature) was known to be an ‘easy marker’. Now that’s the kind of student we want! (In the interests of full disclosure, I have to mention it’s my 22-year-old daughter. But she did say that, I swear.)
Anyway Donna, now speaking of disappointments, there’s that sister of yours, Lulu – first, she finds some other true love before she meets me; OK, I am happy for her, I must say. But then, she fails to find me a replacement! Don’t you think she has some sort of moral obligation?? Probably in California there’s some consumer protection law that covers this sort of event. Aren’t we all ‘entitled’? I think you probably know not to sully your terrific website with these particular silly comments of mine, but please tell Lulu to pull up her socks or whatever is required, and look after Eric’s interests. I’m kidding of course. More seriously, your website is a treat. Though I have read only a tiny fraction of the books, it’s an inspiration. And I re-read your review of Tales of a Female Nomad again, and laughed again. Sometimes reading the review is enough…Kind regards, Eric