Back when I started my first serious blog, I had problems thinking of a name. Nothing seemed to really come together in my mind, and eventually I fell back on an extremely corny name: “Shadows of the Wind”. As I explained way back in my first ever post (have I really been doing this for five years now?) this title was taken from The Shadow of the Wind, one of my favourite books on the planet. In truth, there isn’t much meaning behind my choice of the title: I just happened to find the idea that what I wrote would swiftly be lost in the wind extremely romantic, and I couldn’t be arsed to think of a better one anyway. I stuck to this title as I talked about books, wrote serialized short stories that never got finished, and thought about all the places I’ve been — throughout all these years, still being my raison d’etre. And then came the news in June 2020 that Carlos Ruiz Zafón, the writer behind Shadow and its three sequels had died of colorectal cancer. I screamed about it to a few friends, and then when I’d exhausted that avenue and fretted about it a bit, I did what most “grieving” readers do when one of their favourite authors has died: I reread the entire series. All 2100 pages of it. I thought a lot about how much the books have changed in meaning for me, and as is common for me these days, this naturally snowballed into a blog post.
That was the summer of 2020. Two years and a thesis later, this piece still hasn’t been published on my blog, but it’s been a sticking point for me. And yes, it’s true that this post is really just another of those posts where I go “ooh, look at what I’m listening to/reading these days, isn’t this book/song interesting”. But the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, as the whole four-book set is called, was more than just the average Gothic mystery novel for me. For it made me think a lot about reading, writing, and growing up as I progressed through my university years — it kickstarted a process for me, where the books I read began to have meaning, where knowing that I’d read the book just wasn’t enough. These books compelled me to evangelize, to realize that part of the joy of books — or any other media — was to share them with others. In a way, this blog and all the posts that have come from it are a result of Carlos Ruiz Zafón. And since yesterday was what would have been his 58th birthday, I thought I’d work through his books again, and tell you all about his greatness once more. This is highly personal — the only thing that’s really compared to it since is my 2019 obsession with the Beatles — and so personal is the only way I can treat these books.
So if you haven’t read the series before, or considered Shadow enough CRZ for a lifetime, then think of this as a primer on the whole series, and a few thoughts about what the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, split into its four volumes, means when you consider them in order of publication. It’s not meant to be a review or a complex thinkpiece — though there will be some of both in there, didactic as I like to be — just think of it as a gentle tease for the books and my relation to them as I babble on for so many words about why I still think of it as a great series.
And if you have read all of them, well, go and write your own blog post.
(Readers are advised that there are minor plot spoilers below — though of course, you could reveal a thousand things and still have room for surprises in any of CRZ’s books.)
Part 1: When I Think of Love As Something New
To hear CRZ tell it, it’s like he planned it from the start. By the time the last book was hitting stores, Ruiz Zafón was telling everyone that the whole thing was meant to be a four-volume work, that this multilayer experience was something that he’d had in mind when he started writing The Shadow of the Wind, the first book in the series. I find this theory dubious, because when Shadow arrived in Spanish bookstores in September 2001, it didn’t make a huge splash. It did have some readers in Spain and other European countries, but it seemed destined to follow the route of his previous YA novels, and why write a four-novel 2100-page project when you don’t even know how the first one will go? (Also, if you are capable of writing The Shadow of the Wind in less than two years, then you do not need another six-and-a-half to write a prequel of shorter length.) But the book slowly caught fire in Europe and then the Americas during 2002/2003: by the end of the decade, it had sold millions of copies, and as we all know these days, money is a great motivator when it comes to deciding whether you want to do sequels. (Looking at you, Top Gun.)
Then again, the slow burn of the book’s success is strangely befitting of the book itself. It’s not immediately apparent that Shadow is an adventure novel: the story begins at a snail’s pace, with the introduction of the central unifying theme, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, and then we are told that protagonist Daniel Sempere has found a rare book (also conveniently called “The Shadow of the Wind”) by Julian Carax, an author with a backstory that’s somewhat intriguing though not really one-of-a-kind. But then nothing really interesting happens for the next forty or so pages: even the debut of a figure “with no face and no name”, a figure who corresponds to the Devil in Carax’s books, adds only the slightest hint of danger to the narrative. If you opened the book looking for an exciting tale of mystery, well — I admit it’s easy to give up right then and there.
But then the second part of the book arrives when Daniel becomes an adult, and you can feel a shift in gears when that happens. By then, Daniel is sixteen, has learned how to become a romantic, and the addition of a few other characters to his orbit — including the indefatigable Fermin Romero de Torres, the best ever sidekick and the wisest man ever to grace the pages of literature — turn out all to be strands in a spiderweb of intrigue surrounding the very book that Daniel has salvaged from the Cemetery. As he tries to discover what happened to Julian Carax, Daniel is sucked into a story that twists and turns, intersecting with events and showing people that you might have brushed off in the first place in a completely new light — and of course, there’s a showdown for the ages at the end of Shadow. Almost everybody has something to do in it, and in the end you’re just absolutely hooked.
All this reads like a blurb for an old-fashioned melodrama, and in a sense that’s what this book is — CRZ even includes a bit of a jibe at this idea within the pages of Shadow. (“You sound like the jacket blurb of a Victorian novel, Daniel.” Guilty as charged.) But it’s the kind of melodrama and scarce believability that pays off: despite the events becoming more and more dangerous, and the coincidences less and less credulous, you can’t help but be sucked along anyway. You believe every single word of Daniel Sempere’s story: from the sudden way he was catapulted into the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, to the countless violent events he seems to helplessly attract around him. And most importantly, you believe everything that they say about books: that they are mirrors that “offer us only what we already carry inside us”, that they tell you who you are. It’s surely no exaggeration to say that Daniel Sempere represents every single reader, any person who’s picked up a book and found themselves wishing all too soon that they were the central character, that they could have a life a tenth as interesting as this.
Like Daniel, I found the book of my dreams in a winding bookstore (though I’d like to think that the Waterstones in Brighton is a little more organized than the Cemetery of Forgotten Books). And the words written early in the intro: “perhaps the bewitching atmosphere of the place had got the better of me, but I felt sure that The Shadow of the Wind had been waiting there for me for years, probably since before I was born” — was that not a very reflection of myself, as I tore through the pages, barely able to catch my breath? It made me feel that all the books I’d read were dry. All the books I’d enjoyed for the past twenty years of my life felt empty: I thought that I hadn’t really learned how to enjoy books until I read Shadow. So this was how good books could get, this was how you could transport people to another place entirely. I was hopelessly in love with it, and even now — five and a half years on from my first reading — I keep on going back to it, hoping to find something new in its pages. It has never disappointed.
Part 2: Half of What I Say Is Meaningless
In many ways, Shadow is the opposite of the next book in the series, the prequel The Angel’s Game. Set more than twenty years before the bulk of Shadow, CRZ’s Barcelona is still a city of shadows and enemies lurking round every corner — but there the similarities end. Evil no longer comes from the shadows, but operates in broad daylight, leeching off your fears and your paranoias, manipulating you and squashing you into the ground with their privilege. And it is this backdrop that makes Angel a very different book: where Shadow sees light and hope, Angel sees nothing but darkness and despair; where Shadow finds pleasure in the winding streets of the city, Angel concentrates on its wide open spaces and finds in them nothing but horror. At the end of the last book, everything was tied up nicely for Daniel Sempere; no such resolution awaits Angel’s protagonist David Martin, who ends the novel doomed to wonder his own personal purgatory for evermore.
But the most notable difference between books one and two lies in who they’re written for. And what Shadow does for the reader’s experience, Angel tries to do for the writers out there: this is a book by writers for writers; one that clearly tries to reach out to them the way Shadow assured all of us that books mattered. This is clearly a subject dear to Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s heart, and he turns out some of his finest writing when talking about its allure, the reason why every writer feels the need to create. Here, for instance, is the very first paragraph of the novel:
A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood, and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he covets the most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed, and his soul has a price.
I put it to you that this passage is better than anything in The Shadow of the Wind, perhaps anything in the whole series. The only thing that even comes close is the epilogue of The Labyrinth of the Spirits, but even that one does not capture the thrill of writing, the desperate need within every writer for their genius to be heard, recognised, slathered with praise. CRZ captures that hunger very well in the first half of the book, as David Martin graduates from writing pulpy short stories to Gothic fiction to a work of literature that will supposedly establish an entire religion, all while he adds to an ever-growing list of enemies. Normally I’d roll my eyes and look for protagonists with a lesser persecution complex, but David’s desperate need to get his voice heard is so acute, so viscerally presented, that I can’t help but sympathise with him. This is an excellent set-up, paired up with a thoroughly engaging character and storyline; there are a few hang-ups along the way, but by and large this is an intriguing prospect.
Pity then, that it all falls apart halfway through the book. (Literally: the book is 504 pages long, the downward spiral begins shortly after page 250.) Having found himself in an idyllic situation, David Martin (and Carlos Ruiz Zafón) takes it upon himself to utterly ruin his newfound happiness, aching to and destroying every single relationship that makes him feel something. It’s at this point that Angel reveals itself to be an entirely different beast: although we are aware that Senor Martin is doomed from the very start, words cannot express just how dark the book gets — and how idiotic the whole narrative becomes. The beginning of the book was already epic: the first pages alone feature mysterious benefactors, doomed romances, and sex workers who materialise out of thin air. But having already come out with all guns a-blazing, CRZ then sees no other way to keep up the pace than to go outright ballistic. The result is an overcooked disaster where David Martin solves each and every problem by adding to the body count; the horror that accompanies this solution is perfect for the first couple of deaths, but becomes tiresome and worrying by the time you get to murder number five. If you continue reading, it is because you are appalled by the slow-motion trainwreck happening before your eyes; perhaps it may have seemed cathartic in the eyes of Ruiz Zafón for David to avenge himself on each and every person who has wronged him, but to any sane reader it merely feels like a lame attempt at a gorefest. And that’s not what we came here for.
This was very galling to me, particularly because I had such high hopes for the second book in the series. And it wasn’t as if CRZ had suddenly lost his powers of storytelling: as I said, the first part of the book is as good as, if not better than, The Shadow of the Wind. But somewhere along the way the author’s need to up the stakes overcame him, and David Martin turns from merely an arrogant but sympathetic jerk to an actively unlikable human being. As I read through the book, my enjoyment of it became increasingly forced: “oh this is just another example of David’s unlikability”, “this is implausible but I guess it could work”, more and more denials until I had to admit, round about page 400, that this was just too overblown for me — at which point the book grew much more bearable.
And so CRZ did, perversely, achieve his purpose of connecting with writers in this novel. Specifically, it reminds writers like me that there is always such a thing as too much, that events in a novel need to follow some sort of rhyme and reason, instead of just being piled on one after another. Your readers will notice, and they will get tired if you force them to spend too much time piecing the narrative together. I will still stand up any day of the week for the indelible first section, and over the years I’ve taken more and more of a perverse pleasure out of the last fifty pages of the book, as gory and incongruous as it may be; but David Martin’s exploits just make no sense when you string them together, and it all leaves the reader feeling mighty unsatisfied. Perhaps the next one would be better?
Part 3: Reading Is Easy with Eyes Closed
For the last two books, Senor Ruiz Zafón abandoned his attempt to capture the four facets of the literary experience and focused on trying to make actual sense out of his novels. (One could argue that since most of this novel is recounted by Fermin, it is an ode to listening, but that’s taking the analogy too far, even for me.) The Prisoner of Heaven arrived in November 2011, and from what I can tell the fanfare was immeasurably more muted by now: whereas Angel had been greeted with mass debate on its legacies as a sequel, Prisoner landed with a damp splat and was promptly forgotten. Sandwiched between two gargantuan books — only 290 pages separate Angel and Labyrinth — book three is obviously filler, something written to bridge the gap between the two books that had preceded it.
And yet CRZ tries to put a lot of weight on those pages: not only does it have the task of preparing us for the gargantuan book four, it also has the unenviable task of making the two previous ones actually click with each other. Shadow and Angel had thus far only been linked by the common ground of the Sempere and Sons bookshop (and by the fact that David Martin’s friend Isabella would go on to become Daniel Sempere’s mother), but Prisoner suddenly and abruptly reveals that there is much more to the bookshop than meets the eye. Now the bookshop is the entryway to a labyrinthine conspiracy, one that seems to stretch through time and space, and the world of Daniel Sempere suddenly takes on new and ominous undertones. Most of this book is therefore catching-up: Fermin tells us the story of how he came to enter Daniel’s orbit, we get updates on a couple of characters, and the significance of Daniel’s dead mother is more fully explained — in a twist that absolutely everyone could see coming, CRZ reveals that it’s not just their passion for similar books that connects Daniel Sempere to David Martin.
The thing is, the material is clearly not there. Fermin’s story of how he came to know David Martin in the cells of Montjuic Castle may be captivating, but try as he might CRZ can’t really stretch out the whole tale past 120 pages: we already got to know Fermin and Daniel pretty well in Shadow, and so there isn’t really much backstory that needs fleshing out. To make this book a little more worth its weight, Ruiz Zafón adds a subplot where Daniel suspects his wife of cheating, the incident is revealed to be a misunderstanding/another bout of foolishness/jealousy on his behalf, and the incident is promptly forgotten for now and eternity. Perhaps Ruiz Zafón thought that the book wasn’t up to his usual convoluted standards and that something else needed to happen; yet “suspicions of an affair” is something that you’d normally find in a soap opera, not one of the greatest book series of all time. Bea literally experiences the reverse situation in Labyrinth, and in that book it is handled far better, both by the character and by the narrative — proving that CRZ DOES know how to write about illicit liaisons with tact and subtlety, yet this subtlety is nowhere on show in Prisoner. It’s almost like this book was written as a quick cash grab.
But this isn’t the worst problem of The Prisoner of Heaven. It’s the retcons that are the problem — and by GOD, those retcons are horrific. Ruiz Zafón seems determined to destroy everything we knew about this world, just so that they might fit his grand conspiracy: for instance, Fermin, previously a simple homeless beggar in Shadow, suddenly becomes this agent sent forth by Daniel’s dead mother and David Martin to look after him or something. I find this very hard to believe, not to say an insult to Fermin’s personality. But recasting Fermin is not the only travesty in this book, as CRZ plays fast and loose with every established event in the Cemetery universe, and what this ultimately means is that so many characters just aren’t the ones we met in Shadow or Angel.
Look, huge conspiracies are great. They raise the stakes significantly, seemingly innocuous events can reveal exciting layers of meaning, and you get to see the world in a completely different light. If it’s done well, then it can be truly awe-inspiring. But Prisoner is just table-setting at its most obvious and clumsy, with none of the careful foreshadowing we glimpsed in the first two books; and this just ruins any motivation I have to find out how it all ends. A lot of people like to cite Angel as the worst novel of the cycle, but take it from me that this ham-fisted attempt to rewrite his own literature is worse. It’s predictable, it’s incoherent, and it’s just godawful dull. Even Angel, pandering to its audience’s taste for blood, never stopped being entertaining.
But now — NOW that all that exposition was out of the way — now we would get to see the explosive resolution, right? Ruiz Zafón ends this volume with this ominous cliché: “he kisses her, knowing that the story, his story, has not ended. It has only just begun”. Surely this would reward any reader patient enough to see it through to the bitter end?
Part 4: And In the End, the Love You Take…
The years pass. The characters grow, fade from our minds, and others take centre stage. By the time the 805-page long Labyrinth of the Spirits arrived in November 2016, the universe had expanded to the point where seemingly every member of the Spanish literati could be included in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books universe — and many other members without, as well. For the first time in the series, CRZ acknowledges that there is a world outside Barcelona — there are a couple of glimpses of Madrid, even if it’s so drab that you could replace it with Valencia or Bucharest — and we get a whole new character to focus on. Heretofore completely unheard of in the Cemetery universe, The Labyrinth of the Spirits introduces Alicia Gris, who is both an ace detective working for the Spanish secret police and also a femme fatale with an immense guilt complex. Because of course you need those in your Gothic novels.
Of course, “complex” is a term that can be appended to any novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, but for the first time since Shadow it feels truly earned. Alicia is the main character of this novel, but we also get visitations from David Martin, Daniel Sempere and Fermin Romero de Torres; retcons are aplenty, as they were in the two previous volumes, but this time they feel a little more deftly plotted: when Fermin’s past connections to Alicia are revealed, you at least think them plausible, rather than something CRZ just pulled out of his arse. The best example of the author’s return to form, however, lies in the comeback of slow burns: instead of throwing us in at the deep end, Ruiz Zafón bides his time, slowly raising the stakes and the levels of dread, only occasionally hinting at the great conspiracy at play — a mention of Prisoner baddie Mauricio Valls here, a brief check-in with a sinister stalker of Alicia and coworker Vargas there — so that when everything explodes into chaos more than two-thirds of the way through the book, you’re more than willing to go along with it.
There are stumblings, of course: the sheer scale of the book (again, EIGHT HUNDRED PAGES) means that it can be pretty exhausting to keep up with all the narrative threads; and CRZ’s usual imaginative sharpness in describing settings falters a bit here — there are, after all, only so many ways you can describe a creepy mansion or stairwell or dungeon. Most discomfiting, however, is the treatment of Alicia herself. A frequent criticism of CRZ’s writing is that his young women often seem to conform to a particularly twisted version of the Madonna-whore complex: either they are hookers with a heart of gold (Rocito, Chloe, Matilde) or they’re feisty young adults who seem pure but hide an extremely active libido (Clara, Beatriz, Cristina). Intentionally or not, Alicia seems to be CRZ’s response to this criticism: here, reader, is a character with both a traumatic past and goodness buried deep inside her. She’s a complex character, so there. But it’s hard to read Labyrinth without thinking that the author’s as delighting a little too much in female bodies and trauma both mental and physical. Here, for example, is a section describing Alicia putting on a harness which protects her from a scar of her childhood:
“He saw her remove her skirt and, grabbing the harness, place it over her hops and her right leg as if she were putting on some exotic sort of corset. When she adjusted the fasteners, the harness hugged her figure like a second skin, giving her the appearance of a mechanical doll. It was then that Alicia looked up and the thug met her eyes in the mirror: cold eyes, devoid of all expression.”
Over the course of this story, Alicia’s scar will appear again and again, and the pain from it will be used against her again and again, and after a while you can’t help but wince at how much it’s being mentioned. It is not, of course, the only characteristic of Alicia’s: she will display guilt, doubt, and — unique to any CRZ hero — the existence of a spine. But that the author is spending so much time on it feels… well, a little icky.
That said, it is a blemish on what is otherwise an excellent book. Ruiz Zafón seems to have finally mastered the balance between corpses and plot development, and Labyrinth is a thoroughly rip-roaring experience that is easy to enjoy from start to finish. There’s no sign of the paeans to storytelling that dotted the first book, which makes this more of a conventional detective novel than a truly great bildungsroman, but then again very few books can be as good as The Shadow of the Wind. If we are disappointed by the rather obvious twists and characterisations — so much of this novel is a rehash of Shadow’s plot points — then we are compensated by the surprising depth and humanity with which he imbues his characters, from new characters like Vargas and Alicia to old friends like Bea and Isaac. (Seriously, Isaac is such a delight to read.) I didn’t find myself fully comprehending what was unfolding before my eyes, but novels like Labyrinth have a special charm: you are content to barrel forward, letting the sound of the words and the settings described carry you along, occasionally spirited out of your delirium by a phrase or a particular plot point that makes you sit up and go “holy SHIT”.
For the first 700 pages or so, Labyrinth is solid. It’s a mystery novel with stakes, but those stakes aren’t particularly high and you can vaguely guess where everything is going anyway: Alicia saves the day, finds inner peace, everybody gets a happy ending under the cloudless skies of Barcelona. But CRZ has one last surprise up his sleeve — a 60-page epilogue named “Julian’s Book”, where Daniel’s son grows up, finds love, and begins to write the story of his family. If that sounds metatextual, that’s because it is: those sixty pages feels like Ruiz Zafón telling us his life story, telling us why he writes and how this project is basically his magnum opus. It is, in essence, a defence for the existence of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books cycle.
Going all meta is of course a difficult choice. So often it blurs the line between reality and fiction; if you get the balance wrong, you risk yoinking the reader right out of their fantasy world. But somehow CRZ, never one to skimp on the bombast, gets the balance perfectly right in this perfectly-written epilogue. Julian’s life story may not be as flashy as his father’s (at no point, for instance, does he get shot), but it hits so many emotional beats along the way that you never notice: his first serious love, the death of Franco, his ongoing search for Julian Carax. It’s perfect for what is essentially CRZ’s tip of the hat to us: there are knowing winks to colleagues and statements of gratitude to people who’ve made his book cycle successful, including the readers themselves. (My favourite, however, is the appearance of an “English novelist” called Lucia Hargreaves. I wonder what Lucia Graves’ reaction was when she first read that.)
“Julian’s Book” may just be the best section of text in the series — and in the light of his death, it has become so much more poignant. I can’t read this without envisioning it as Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s curtain call, a testament to the magic and motivational power of storytelling that he used his dying breaths to write. The final paragraphs, where Julian takes his own daughter to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books under a shower of fireworks, is one of the most beautiful and perfect endings to a story you could imagine: “the sky explodes into a tree of light, and for a moment the fireworks of the closing ceremony capture the night of a Barcelona that will never return.” It’s theatrical, fantastical, and utterly beautiful, and a bittersweet assurance that, even as this particular set of characters exits the stage, the story itself will continue, so long as there are people around to tell it.
Epilogue: Memories Longer than the Road Ahead
It’s been five years since I first read The Shadow of the Wind, more than two years since CRZ passed. I have gone on to read other people’s stories, I have written some of my own. But everything seems to pale in comparison to Shadow, and every time I return to it (or, less frequently, Angel or Labyrinth) I still marvel at this astonishingly well-crafted work of literature. This is by no means a perfect cycle of books: there are only two out of four that I would definitely recommend to people, and Prisoner is a volume that is better off forgotten. But it’s the emotional content that matters when you’re reading the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, the discovery of words and phrases that just seem to mirror your own feelings precisely, whether you’re reading, writing, listening to or just simply telling a story. Ruiz Zafón knows, to an intimate and sensual level, the lure of literature. He may seem a little pretentious at times, but then again, isn’t that true of any person foolish enough to air their thoughts out in public?
The Cemetery cycle stands as the greatest thing that CRZ ever wrote — of course, his only other works are a couple of young adult novels, but reading those just makes you appreciate what miracles the Cemetery books were. (I read Marina straight after finishing the series, and was immediately appalled at how unrealistic it was — unlike his later books, Marina explicitly leans into the supernatural, to an almost laughable degree.) Any author with a book as imaginative and emotionally insightful as Shadow deserves to be called a genius; the fact that Carlos Ruiz Zafón managed to replicate that experience at least once shows just how much he deserves to have his books read, discussed, lauded for evermore. If you love telling stories — heck, if you have even a passing interest in stories — then you just have to read The Shadow of the Wind and all the books it spawned. It’s an experience that turns you inside out, and it’ll kickstart a love affair to last your whole life long. It did for me.
(The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game, The Prisoner of Heaven and The Labyrinth of the Spirits, written by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated by Lucia Graves and published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, utilised for purposes of criticism and review.)