It was a few years ago now that I was first pulled into the world of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s imagination with his internationally bestselling book, The Shadow Of The Wind. In this post-war Barcelona set book, we met such brilliant characters as Daniel Sempere, Fermin Romero de Torres, and every book nerd’s dream paradise in the form of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. After this Zafón released The Angel’s Game, set in Barcelona again but slightly earlier, and revolving around the writer David Martin.
In The Prisoner of Heaven, Zafón starts to connect the pieces of what, at first, seemed like two entirely different books. We return to about a year after the events of The Shadow of the Wind, and while Daniel is getting used to being a father and a husband, Fermin is preparing for his own wedding. However, there is a dark secret lurking in Fermin’s past, and he spends a good part of the novel telling Daniel of his experiences in prison (for espionage) following the civil war (which is alluded to briefly in the earlier books). Through all of this David Martin is brought back into the story, though I won’t explain how as I don’t want to give too much away. But I will say that if you read The Angel’s Game and at the end, like me, thought “what in the world just happened”, I’d recommend reading this novel as it clears some things up. By the end of the story, a lot of older storylines are at least explained, if not fully tied up, a villain is revealed who connects all the characters so far, and the ending makes it very clear there’s a fourth part coming (which Zafón himself has previously mentioned).
At under 300 pages this story is barely half the length of the first two books. But it is effective, and a lot of the imagery used is so strong it will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading – something I’ve always liked about the way Zafón writes his novels. However, he claims he wanted each of these stories to function as independent stories that happened to be connected to the others through various characters and settings, and I just don’t think that’s the case here – if you haven’t read the first two novels in this cycle (as he prefers to call it, instead of a series), you just won’t be able to appreciate this as much. What grabbed me about this was the attachment I already had to the characters – my fondness for Fermin made his story all the more moving, and my bewilderment by the oddity that is David Martin was only increased by the revelations in this book. I can’t help but feel that without these already existing feelings for the characters, this book would fall a little flat.
Although this book struggles to stand alone as an independent story (especially with its somewhat cliffhanger ending), it does have a lot of positive points. The villain, a character named Valls, is a talentless aspiring writer who sadistically climbs the political ladder through his life, ever hungry for power and recognition of a talent and intellect he at least thinks he possesses. For much of the story, he is the director of the prison housing Fermin and David Martin, and when the novel returns to present tense more slowly is revealed of what became of him in the intervening decades. Through Valls, Zafón cleverly takes a swipe at Spanish literary circles, at history and at the politics of the time, but through his sometimes over dramatic story manages to keep it clearly fictional and not aimed at anybody in particular. Zafón’s descriptions of Barcelona, as well, are simply magic – even if you don’t like the story it is hard not to be magnetised by his use of language to paint such a vivid and dark image of this city. Lastly, inspiration is drawn from another classic work, The Count of Monte Cristo, which is referenced directly at numerous points throughout in a way that serves as both testament to the literary work and to Zafón’s writing and storytelling skills.
Overall this is a great book – not Zafón’s best, but still very good. If you enjoyed his other work I would definitely recommend this one to you, and if you haven’t read anything by this master of the gothic tale, I strongly recommend starting with The Shadow Of The Wind first and working your way towards this one. As for me, I can’t wait until the next part of this cycle comes along and I can find out what happens next!
Have you read this book, or any other books by Zafón? What are your thoughts on them? How do you compare them to other books of the genre?