Friday, July 26, 2013

Book Review: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Shadow of the Wind (La Sombra del Viento) is a novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafón and forms part of a series called The Cemetery of Forgotten Books (El Cementerio de los Libros Olvidados), though this book is so well contained that I have no idea what the other books in the series are about. I read this as part of the book club I'm part of and so it is straight fiction. The novel was originally written in Spanish, but I read it in English since I read faster there plus it was significantly cheaper. I did wonder at some of the language, but I don't think too much was lost in translation.

The Shadow of the Wind revolves around the story of a young boy, Daniel, who receives a rare copy of a book with the same title. He is fascinated with the story and wants to learn more about the author- Julian Carax. However, he quickly realizes that someone has been systematically burning all of Carax works and this person has caught word that Daniel holds one of the last copies. Who is this mysterious person and why does he or she want to destroy these books? Just who was Carax that he should receive such attention? These questions drive Daniel as he searches for the truth in the streets of Barcelona.

Read on for my (spoiler-free) review.

Overall Impression
I enjoyed the book more than I expected. The story, though it jumped around a bit, was engaging and most of the characters were interesting. The only two drawbacks that I can think of are described below.

There is a lot of exposition in the book, especially in the flashback scenes. In writing, I have heard it recommended that one "show, not tell". That is, one should show the events taking place as they are happening, rather than telling the reader so-and-so happened. That is not to say it is wrong or bad to do so, many of the books I read have long parts devoted to descriptions of the world or prior events. When done well, they set the mood and setting of the story, however, I don't like it when it replaces the action. In this book, it seems like it is overused and slows down the story at parts.

Another problem is the narrator (usually the main character). Despite starting off as a 10 year-old boy, he sounds far older. It is a bit jarring at first, but you can get used to it. More troubling, however, is during the flashback scenes. Here another character is relating the story, but the narrator switches from first person limited to third person omniscient. Despite being setup as one character talking about past events, the narrator skips from one mind to the next sharing thoughts and secrets the character would never have known. Combined with the overuse of exposition, this weakens the really interesting backstory.

The story meanders through several plot lines, most surrounding Daniel. On a personal level, he is becoming a man and struggles with all the normal things a teenager in love will. On another level is his passion for reading and his desire to learn more about Carax. Someone has been burning Carax's novels and Daniel is determined to find out why. As he carries out his investigation, his life and that of his friends is placed in danger. Simultaneous to these two main plots is also the story of Carax himself which we learn through Daniel's investigation. There are some interesting parallels between both lives.

The very end of the novel ties together literally everything. There is no plot-line left unfinished. This is a bit different from some other books I read, where one or two things are left unresolved so you as the reader can imagine the story continues. I'm actually not sure how this is a series...

The plot revolves around Daniel Sempere, a young lad who reads a book titled The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. Julian Carax is also a major character, though we mainly see him in flashbacks or through all the lives he has touched in his life. We see Daniel at various stages in his life, and while as a narrator he doesn't change, as a character he does grow.

Other characters, like Fermin, Fumero, etc, also have large roles to play in the story, but rarely, if ever, do we see the world through their eyes. We do learn a lot of backstory about most of the characters. While this is great to flesh them out, at the same time the reader can be overwhelmed with all the information.

Setting / World Building
This is an ordinary fiction novel set in the real world. There is mention of magic, angels, curses, etc, but it's clear that these are just superstitions and not actual facts. The story is set in Barcelona, which I had the opportunity to visit last year for an astronomy conference. Hence, I recognized several of the place names and it let me immerse myself in the novel a little better. I found this very cool Google map with all the locations labeled on it, should you be interested in placing the story within the city (see also here).

Most of story takes place after the time of Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) when Franco rose to power. Such events color the characters perceptions. A general despair is felt throughout the city, particularly in the later half of the novel, and it resonates very well with the characters and plot at the time. There are constant mentions of the dictator, communists, anarchists, and fascists throughout the novel and at times the characters will discuss the politics of the time.

Final Thoughts
Despite not being a fantasy or science fiction novel, this was pretty good. My only complaint is in the narrator and the expository nature of part of the story. I felt it could have been a bit better had the author left some of the task of piecing together the mystery to the reader. However, the characters and plot was engaging and I don't think anything important was lost in the translation. A bit of the dialogue is a bit flowery, but not too bad. It was overall a very good book and I would recommend it to anyone interested in accessible Spanish-language literature.

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