TheBookSmugglers's Reviews > The Prisoner of Heaven

The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
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Jul 23, 12


Original review posted on The Book Smugglers

WARNING! This post contains spoilers!!

Oh, The Prisoner of Heaven, WHY? WHY?

You will have to excuse this sudden display of emotional distress. But I am overcome with feelings and they must be exorcized here.

A few years ago I read The Shadow of the Wind, a tremendous Gothic thriller with labyrinthine storytelling, a wonderful sense of setting, beautiful writing and incredible characters. It soon became a favourite. I do recognise its problems especially those concerning the depiction of female characters but since everything else about that book was so good, I was able to enjoy it to a great extent. That said, I always felt that the The Shadow of the Wind was a standalone novel, its main story a self-contained affair – even though there was indeed potential for more stories in that world.

Cue a few years later and the author published a prequel entitled The Angel’s Game. Although the same beautiful prose was present, the book turned out to be a great disappointment. A meandering plot, clichéd characters and a GOTCHA open-for-interpretation clumsy ending and a very loose connection to The Shadow of the Wind made the cynical in me believe The Angel’s Game to be an afterthought to capitalise on the huge success of that first book.

Cue to a few years later and we now have The Prisoner of Heaven. A small introduction tells us that this is part of a cycle of novels in the same literary universe and this labyrinth of stories “when woven together lead to the heart of the narrative”.

The Prisoner of Heaven is then, as a matter of fact, the third book in what is now, excuse my French, a freaking quartet!

In all fairness there is nothing wrong with this idea in principle but in reality, I find its execution to be clumsy and exploitative.

The Prisoner of Heaven is narrated once more by The Shadow of the Wind’s hero Daniel Sempere – now married to Bea and with a young child, running the Sempere and Sons bookstore alongside his father. Business is not good and the two Semperes are struggling to make ends meet. Happiness is on the horizon though, as their close friend Fermín Romero de Torres is about to wed Bernarda, the love of his life. But there is something bothering Fermín and he is not his usual upbeat self. Just then, a strange figure walks into the bookstore and leaves a message for Fermín that says:

“For Fermín Romero de Torres, who came back from among the dead and holds the key to the future.”

This prompts Daniel to question Fermín about his past and those revelations will change everything Daniel knows about not only Fermín but also about his own family.

Ostensibly, The Prisoner of Heaven is Fermín’s book. The vast majority of the book is his account of his prison time at the infamous Montjuïc castle where during the days of Franco’s dictatorship (in the 40s), political prisoners where held and “disappeared”. The depiction of the prison and how the prisoners suffered was horrific and affecting.

It is there that Fermín becomes friends with David Martin, no other than the narrator of The Angel’s Game (!!!!!) (I shall go back to this astounding piece of information later). I have to say though that the description of the horrors suffered by the prisoners inside the prison were completely cheapened by Fermín’s daredevil escape – in the fashion of Count of Monte Cristo, a scheme devised and organised by David Martin. On that front one must ask: why didn’t David organise his own escape? Because it didn’t suit this story, that’s why.

Mind you, there are good things about The Prisoner of Heaven. The writing is still captivating and Fermín is his usual lovable self. In fact, Fermín remains a favourite character of mine. His resilience, his heroism, his wits and sense of humour are what make The Prisoner of Heaven at least readable.

The Prisoner of Heaven has a series of mysteries that are investigated by Daniel and Fermín and this construct as well as the very nature of those mysteries were utterly familiar. The “who is this figure who left the message”, the “why is this happening”, the “villain of this story is a piece of shit policeman” are just SO MUCH like The Shadow of the Wind it’s not even funny.

But the two main problems I had with The Prisoner of Heaven are the way that it rewrites the story of the first two books, and the depiction of the female characters.

With regards to the former: all of a sudden, we learn that through his friendship with David Martin, Fermín has been a part of the Semperes’ life ALL ALONG. That he knew about them, and has been following Daniel since he was a child. All of a sudden, Daniel’s mother Isabella was murdered as a part of this plot. All of a sudden, David Martin himself is a hero and we are led to question once again his already extremely unreliable narrative in The Angel’s Game. I get the feeling that this is supposed to enrich the story, to deepen it with the promised “narrative links” of the introduction. In reality, to me, this has done nothing but to cheapen the stories told so far. I do appreciate that this is a very personal reaction though and I am sure other readers will feel differently.

Which brings me to the problematic depiction of the female characters. Although I was able to love the first book despite this obvious problem, I found that this trend has been amplified in The Prisoner of Heaven in a way that it jumps from the pages. The vast majority of the female characters in this series are either prostitutes with a Heart of Gold (always, always described as being past “their prime”, poor souls to be pitied and lied to about their crumbling beauty) or Impossibly Beautiful Tragic/Angelic figures. Most of the female characters are victims. They are there to be protected, avenged or suspected of foul play.

One of the secondary storylines depicts Daniel finding a letter in Bea’s possession – which, by the way, he opens and reads– and when it turns out to be a love letter from her ex-fiancée, Bea becomes the object of Daniel’s suspicion. This is never fully addressed in the narrative directly with Bea, who never finds out about his suspicions. It is always about Daniel, about what he will do, how he will deal with this. He suspects her because she is too beautiful. To add insult to the injury, toward the end of the novel, there is one random chapter when the narrative is from Bernarda and Bea’s PoV and it is entirely about the men in their lives.

Ultimately, The Prisoner of Heaven reads like a filler novella. It is short, its narrative is full of shortcuts, it is nowhere near as well executed as The Shadow of the Wind and most exasperating of all, it ends on a maddening cliff-hanger in preparation for the final book.

I feel no desire to read the last book in this (now) quartet. In fact, I am done with Zafon’s books for good. It should tell you something that instead of feeling sad, I actually feel relieved for having made this decision.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Louise (new)

Louise I was done after the mess that was Angel's Game but reconsidered when I saw this one. Definitely not going to pick it up now. Thank you for the warning, doesn't sound like I would enjoy this at all.

I hate it when sequels aren't just underwhelming but actively destroy the magic of the first book. Publishers/authors/whoever pushes the decision really need to learn that some books work better as standalones.


message 2: by John (new)

John I keep meaning to pick up Shadow of the Wind, but the author's YA books never go past cliche, two-dimensional horror stories, even if his writing is creepy. :/ Not sure if it's worth the investment of one good book and a bunch of other meh ones.


message 3: by Buka (new)

Buka Wow, I had no idea there was more after The Angel's Game... Thank you for the review. I think, I will treat Shdow of the Wind as a standalone and be content with it.
I loved The Shadow of the Wind, couldn't put it down, it was one of "the books" for that year for me. But I have to agree with you about The Angel's Game - it was a disappointment. I got stalled when I was about 1/3 into the book because I realized it was essentially the same as Shadow of the Wind, only not that good, with the same feeling of 'Teh Drama' only, again, more pretentious than gripping.

But Shadow of the Wind is definitely worth reading. It has a great balance between spectacular and intelligent without being snotty.


Cláudio WARNING: CONTAINS SPLOILERS

To a great extente I agree with your review. I don't mind to realise Fermin was part of Daniel's life all along. It does not change TSOTW. In any case, there seem to be a number of loose ends. Otherwise I've missed something:

What happened to Maurício Vals? Fermín said to Daniel that at first he was worried Daniel would tried to find him; now, he was worried him was trying to find Daniel. Was he? Plus, was Bea's admirer (punched at the Ritz) wooing her, or was all Mauricio’s plot? Why did Mauricio Vals ceased to appear in public, even if continually mentioned in the press? Was it MV who made the Salgado's money dissapear? In fact, did Fermín actually killed Salgado when they split and Daniel went for the money(?) briefcase at the station?


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