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Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
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A-The Angels GameSpanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón's literary thriller The Shadow of the Wind ( 3 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2004), which introduced readers to Barcelona's Cemetery of Forgotten Books, sold 12 million copies worldwide. Judging from our readers' reactions, we underrated that book-and we hope that now we're not making the same mistake twice. The Angel's Game is a prequel to that best-selling novel, set in the same city at the end of World War I.

The Story: In the 1920s, David Martín is a down-and-out writer in Barcelona, forced to write a series of beloved, sensationalist pulp novels about the city's dark underbelly instead of the lofty literature he craves. Then, after he contracts a fatal illness and his true loves marries his mentor, David meets a mysterious French publisher, Andreas Corelli, who proposes to pay Martín a fortune to write a mythical story that may just create a new religion. At first excited, Martín grows wary as he discovers dark secrets about Corelli and his publishing house-sinister mysteries that hearken back to his own decrepit mansion and life. Soon, the bodies begin to pile up.
Doubleday. 531 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780385528702

USA Today 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Game is a multi-layered confection that combines undying love, magical realism, meditations on religion, the importance of books and a love affair with the vibrant city of Barcelona. Zafón hits the reset button on what it means to be a great writer. His visionary storytelling prowess is a genre unto itself." Carol Memmott

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Its magical qualities require a certain suspension of disbelief ... but what are books for, if not to stretch the limits of imagination? ... It may give you nightmares, but if this book was meant to be a testament to how a book can engage the imagination like nothing else, Zafón's mission can be truly called accomplished." Mary Ann Gwinn

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ruiz Zafón's flamboyant pulp epic is something altogether sillier [than Faust], a pact-with-the-devil tale whose only purpose is to give its readers some small intimation of the darker pleasures of the literary arts, the weird thrill of storytelling without conscience. ... He's essentially a voluptuary whose temperament runs to big emotions and the purplish prose that heightens them." Terrence Rafferty

Spectator (UK) 3 of 5 Stars
"This is all rattling good gothic fun, but there is a danger that this novel takes itself too seriously. ... The Angel's Game won't quite bear the weight of Zafón's endless aphorisms on the nature of truth and evil, his meditations on the formalising of religion, the manipulation of faith and dogma or the 'sweet poison' of authorial vanity." Honor Clerk

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"You will either nod approvingly when someone bangs typewriter keys until his fingers bleed or an old widow croaks, 'This city is damned. Damned,' or else you will strap yourself down for a minimalist drip of Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie. ... Only a churl-that is, a reviewer-would ask himself: At what point does excess become excessive?" Louis Bayard

Oregonian 2.5 of 5 Stars
"In The Angel's Game, it's as if Zafón, lacking historical evil, manufactures dark forces out of the supernatural instead, which struck me as less frightening, convincing or rich-though there is a late-inning hint that [Martín's] writing for Corelli presaged the horrors let loose on the planet by 1945, when the book draws to an end. Still, readers who loved Zafón the first time out, may again." Maya Muir

Times (UK) 2 of 5 Stars
"The novel is styled like the penny-dreadfuls that [Martín] used to turn out, with lots of horrible murders, tragic lost loves, crooked cops, shady lawyers, supernatural mysteries and shocking revelations. ... . [Zafón] wanted to write authentic masterpieces or, failing that, good honest thrillers; instead, he sold his soul to produce meretricious and slightly pernicious million-selling middlebrow tosh such as this." Hugo Barnacle

Critical Summary

Readers worldwide loved Shadow of the Wind; critics are more skeptical about The Angel's Game. Certainly, Zafón knows how to tell a story: the novel meshes forbidden love, magical realism, religion and ideas, literature, and gothic horror in a compelling tale. He also knows how to set a scene: here, the architecture, slums, and modernist leanings of Barcelona become a character in their own right. Still, complaints marred the reviews. A few critics commented that the story, despite its far-fetched subplots, takes itself too seriously; its philosophical musings don't quite work. Others complained of the dark, labyrinthine plot, purple prose, and predictability. Still, fans of The Shadow of the Wind will relish this prequel; after all, storytelling-the heart of the novel-is "the master [Zafón] serves, and the devil he knows" (New York Times Book Review).

Also by the Author

The Shadow of the Wind (2004): In 1950s Barcelona, under Franco's dictatorship, Daniel Sempere, the son of a bookseller, discovers a rare novel, The Shadow of the Wind, by Julián Carax, an obscure author. As Daniel tries to uncover the mysteries of Carax and his novels, his path crosses with a strangely disfigured man, a beautiful blind woman, and others with dark secrets to keep.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. The novel begins with David’s recollection of the first time he tasted “the sweet poison of vanity” by writing for a living. How much of his career is fueled by vanity versus poverty? Why was it so difficult for him to heed Cristina’s warnings about selling out to greedy publishers?

2. Like Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s previous novel, The Angel’s Game is written in the first person. What does David reveal about his view of the world as he tells us his story? How might the novel have unfolded if it had been told from Andreas Corelli’s point of view?

3. Sempere influenced David’s life by giving him a copy of Great Expectations. Later returned to him by Corelli, the book still bore the bloody fingerprints of David’s father. How did David’s life resemble a Dickens novel? How was he affected by his parents’ history? How did books and booksellers save him? What is the most memorable book you received as a child?

4. Discuss the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, described especially vividly in chapter 20 (act one). What do the contents of the cemetery say about which books have long lives, and which ones are overlooked? What is required to honor the soul of a book, applying Sempere’s belief that a book absorbs the soul of its author and its readers?

5. What is the common thread in each of Corelli’s tactics for luring David? How did you interpret his “dream” of Chloé? What made David a vulnerable target?

6. What aspects of his identity does David have to leave behind when he becomes Ignatius B. Samson, author of City of the Damned (chapter 8, act one)? What does The Steps of Heaven say about who he wants to be and who Irene Sabino became?

7. How does Pedro Vidal justify his exploitation of David, stealing the woman he loves and capitalizing on David’s prowess as a writer? How did your opinion of Vidal shift throughout the novel? Does he redeem himself in chapter 22 (act three)? Describe someone whom you idolized early in your career who later proved to be untrustworthy.

8. In chapter 24 (act one), Corelli reveals his plan to David, describing religion as “a moral code that is expressed through legends, myths or any type of literary device.” Does this definition match your experience with religion? What do Lux Aeterna and Corelli’s project indicate about faith and the written word?

9. How did you react to the revelations about Ricardo Salvador at the end of chapter 14 (act three)? What had your theories been about Corelli’s network?

10. Explore the novel’s title. Ultimately, who are the angels in David’s world? What are the rules of Corelli’s game? Who are its winners?

11. Discuss Barcelona, especially the traces of renowned architect Antoni Gaudí, as if the city were a character in the novel. How do the tower house in Calle Flassaders (first described in chapter 8, act one) and Vidal’s Villa Helius, along with the cathedrals, cemeteries, Las Ramblas, and other locales, set the tone for The Angel’s Game?

12. What is the effect of reading a novel about a novelist? What truths about the intersection of art and commerce are reflected in the story of Barrido & Escobillas and in their subsequent demise at the hands of an even more controlling publisher?

13. If you had been Inspector Victor Grandes, would you have believed David’s story in chapters 18 and 19 (act three)?

14. How did you interpret the novel’s closing scene, particularly the presence of Cristina? Throughout the novel, how did David reconcile the ideal of Cristina with the realities of circumstance?

15. What is special about the bond between David and Isabella? What do they teach each other about love? If you have read The Shadow of the Wind, discuss your reactions to Daniel’s heritage, revealed in the epilogue.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Doubleday. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.