A good book works because it tells a good story about interesting people. Full stop. These two qualities, narrative and personality, intertwine to create a unique and worthwhile experience. If the story isn’t compelling or the people aren’t interesting, then all the tricks and gimmicks and set pieces are not going to elevate the book beyond mediocrity. That being said, I don’t think that the best books are always those with the most hyper-realistic characters. Sometimes, the best books are those whose characters are a little larger-than-life, a little bit incredible.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s characters in this series are like this. Daniel Sempere, and especially his protégé Fermin Romero de Torres, could only exist in the pages of a novel—yet thanks to Ruiz Zafón’s writing, you want to believe they could exist in real life. The Prisoner of Heaven, like The Shadow of the Wind before it, is a novel written in hushed yet bombastic tones, a daring tale of adventure, romance, and tragedy.
The Shadow of the Wind was Daniel’s coming-of-age story and a mystery about Julián Carax, a reclusive author. The Prisoner of Heaven is Fermin’s story, in which Ruiz Zafón explains how Fermin acquired his current name, became deceased, and lived again in an epic escape from prison. Most of the story is a flashback to these days, framed by Fermin’s upcoming wedding to Bernarda and the troubling appearance of a character from his past.
According to Ruiz Zafón, one can read the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series in no particular order. Indeed, I haven’t read The Angel’s Game (yet). That being said, I would strongly encourage one to read The Shadow of the Wind before embarking on The Prisoner of Heaven. The former book introduces all of these characters far better than this one, which assumes a familiarity that readers of the first novel will embrace far better than newcomers.
This is both my chief criticism and my chief celebration of the book. It is a triumphant return to the world I first encountered in The Shadow of the Wind. I loved spending more time with Daniel and Fermin. I relished Ruiz Zafón’s descriptions of the Barcelona streets and the characters who populate them. However, the book also feels more like an echo of its predecessor than a fully fledged story in its own right. While Fermin recounts his backstory, I kept waiting for the story proper to begin; elements that feel like they could have taken a hundred pages, like Daniel’s plot to forge Fermin new identity documents, are resolved without much difficulty at all. The most sinister plot element is introduced near the end of the book and left dangling (presumably for book four) without any satisfying developments.
In this respect, The Prisoner of Heaven is interstitial. Fermin’s story is definitely interesting and fascinating. I enjoyed reading it. But it lacks the suspense of the Carax mystery—we know he escapes alive, after all—and even the mystery itself is flaccid. I enjoyed it because it was more in the vein of what I had read in The Shadow of the Wind rather than for its own merits.
This is a beautiful book that only confirms my initial judgement of Ruiz Zafón as a very talented writer. In his “suggested reading” at the end of the book he mentions Umberto Eco, and some critics liken the two authors as well. I find the comparison fitting. Both are very good at creating characters who feel like people but simultaneously seem to embody certain archetypal qualities; this is a delicate balancing act that not every writer achieves.
And, as always, the translator, Lucia Graves, deserves heaps of praise. She makes Ruiz Zafón’s prose shine in English. The writing is so melodious that it’s difficult to believe it wasn’t written in English originally, and I’m very glad that the book has so skilled a translator.
The Prisoner of Heaven is a good book, with a good story and fantastic characters. Yet I feel that it will live in the shadow of The Shadow of the Wind—not necessarily, mind you, such a bad thing.