The Angel's Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Zafón's first book The Shadow of the Wind entranced me from the very first page. I was mesmerized by his imaginative descriptions of post-World War II Barcelona and the story of the boy, Daniel, who sets out to find books by an author whose book, also titled The Shadow of the Wind, has taken possession of him. However, it seems that someone is systematically finding and destroying all copies of books by this author. Utterly charmed by the imaginary place described in the opening pages, I probably would have forgiven the author anything after that. Reading that first page was like falling in love.

Often editors and agents say they only need to read one page of a novel to know if it is worth continuing, a claim that aroused my skepticism until I attended a workshop at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. The workshop was run by, if I remember correctly, a professor from the Humber School and one of the IFOA authors. All of us were given a packet containing the first page from each of our novels, and together we read each one and decided if we wanted to read on or not.

To my surprise, I found myself giving a thumbs-up or -down without any hesitation. One page was enough to decide. Mulling over this experience, I recalled the few, precious times when I have fallen in love with a book after the first page. Sometimes it is just the gorgeous writing that makes me stop and read more slowly to savor the prose. Cold Mountain and Deborah Crombie's Dreaming of the Bones come to mind. Sometimes it's the humor, as in Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum. And just as one may, instead of falling in love at first sight, find love developing unexpectedly over time, there are stories that have grown on me, such as Out Stealing Horses and Stoner.

However, this second book from Zafón, so eagerly anticipated, disappointed me. I found the story hard to follow. Rambling, surreal, and disconnected, this prequel to the first book tells the story of young David Martin who wants to be a writer. A retelling of Great Expectations, the author pounds the point home by having a friendly bookseller give young David a copy and then reminding us by bringing up the Dickens book again at intervals throughout the story. David is helped by his older, wealthier friend, Pedro, first to a newspaper job and then to a contract with a publisher of pulp novels. He moves into a long-abandoned tower, a Gothic monstrosity where he's wanted to live ever since he was a child, and buckles down to his writing, trying to meet the absurd deadlines demanded by his publisher. Then a mysterious French publisher with the Italian name of Corelli approaches him with an offer that seems too good to be true.

The descriptions of Barcelona's fantastic streets and graveyards are wonderful, but the twists and turns of the story struck me as contrived. They appeared to be deliberate complications padding the book instead of growing organically from the characters themselves. The first half of the book seemed more internally consistent and interesting, while the second half, with murders piling up and the supernatural elements taking over, became a jumble of increasingly violent and bizarre scenes. Also, David is not an attractive narrator, full of the passions of youth, but also youth's self-centered cruelty.

My discontent makes me wonder if I really liked that first book. Perhaps I simply fell in love with the title and that opening image. Second books are often disappointing, perhaps because they are pushed into print without the long gestation of that first book, lovingly revised over and over during the long years of seeking a publisher. But it is equally possible that I am the one who has changed, and this book is not so different from the first. Certainly coming into this book my expectations were much greater.

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