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In this country at least, Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafon is best known for his adult literature like The Shadow of the Wind and the Angel's Game. In his native country, however, he is also renowned as a children's author, although it's only fairly recently that these books have been translated into English.
Calcutta, 1916: a man rescues two young babies from a group of assassins and gets them to safety. One is brought up by an old woman, the other in an orphanage. Yet, the sinister presence that seeks to kill them is not so easily deterred and will return once the children reach the age of 16 to complete his mission. Meanwhile, the young boy, Ben, grows up in the orphanage, ignorant of his past and forms a firm childhood friendship with a group of fellow orphans. Will they be able to protect him when Ben's past finally catches up with him?
The book starts in cracking fashion. The mysterious opening instantly grabs your attention and fills your mind with questions. Who are the children? Why are they in such mortal danger? Who is the woman they are entrusted to and what is her link to the killer and the rescuer? Can the children remain hidden and grow up to adulthood in safety? And just why is the mysterious stranger after the children anyway? All these questions instantly flick across your mind and you find yourself hungry for the answers.
Some of these questions are answered fairly quickly; others not until the very end of the book. In this way, Zafon builds a real sense of intrigue and tension. You want to find out more and the more you find out, the more questions you have and so the more you want to keep reading. It's an excellent example of creating a story-telling "vicious circle", trapping the reader inside the events of the book and leaving them eager to find out how events unfold.
Inevitably, the book does show some constraints arising from being aimed at children. The plotting is certainly a lot simpler than in Zafon's other books and the narrative less convoluted. Whereas books such as The Angels's Game have multi-stranded plots, The Midnight Palace has a more straightforward storyline.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, though. All too many books these days feel the need to burden themselves with unnecessary sub-plots or too much detail, which only distract from the main narrative. The Midnight Palace is just told in a simple and effective way.
Where Zafon is particularly effective is in building a sense of time and place. I've never been to Calcutta - and certainly not 1930s Calcutta - yet the setting feels right. It is somehow deeply evocative and this version of Calcutta (whether accurate or not) feels like the perfect setting for this particular tale. There is a sense of wistful nostalgia which evokes memories of Stand by Me. It's never cloying over-sentimentality, but it does make you care passionately for each of the characters; even those who are ostensibly evil.
That same sense of wistful nostalgia is also present in the story. It recalls to mind the Boys' Own Adventure type books that were so popular in the 1940s and 1950s. Books set in exotic locations where the extraordinary seemingly happens every day. Such books can often seem outdated to our modern sensibilities, but Zafon succeeds in reinventing them for a new generation.
All too many writers equate "children" with "stupid", particularly when they are used to writing for an adult audience, and tend to patronise younger readers. This is not a trap Zafon falls into. Whilst the plotting might be simpler, he doesn't dumb the book down. He assumes that young adults are perfectly intelligent beings in their own right; able to read and understand long words, put together hints and clues in the narrative and generally don't need to be spoonfed. His use of language is excellent, with a real sense of warmth to the banter between the friends and a genuine sense of danger as the book progresses. The tone is kept relatively light, but there is always a darker undercurrent threatening to break through. Zafon captures all these elements perfectly whilst at the same time producing a highly entertaining and readable story.
A word of credit, too, for the translator who does an excellent job. It's a seamless translation that flows effortlessly to the extent that I hardly ever remembered that the book was not originally written in English. The translator has successfully preserved the tone and atmosphere which is so crucial to the whole book.
The Midnight Palace will not take you long to read: at most, there's a couple of day's worth of reading and the more determined/impatient reader could easily get through the whole thing in a day. Still, The Midnight Palace packs more entertainment into its relatively slim page count than many a bloated bestseller does with twice the amount of space.
A word of warning before we get too carried away. Mrs SWSt did profess that she felt the book was quite scary for a children's book. Inured as I am to violence (the result of a wasted childhood watching too many horror films), I can't say I noticed but I do, of course, unreservedly trust her opinion and infinite wisdom. Certainly there are a few violent incidents which might upset younger readers, but the violence is not described in great depth and is no worse than what you might see on early evening TV. In fairness, the book is also probably more aimed at the Young Adult market and there's not much can shock them!
So there we go. In a nutshell, The Midnight Palace is best described as the Secret Seven meet Scooby Doo via Stand by Me... and if that doesn't pique your curiosity then you might want to check yourself out for a pulse.
A brand new copy can be yours for around £4.50 (criminally, the Kindle edition costs more) and it's well worth it.
The Midnight Palace
Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Orion Children's, 2012
© Copyright SWSt 2013
Written by Carlos Ruiz Zafon in his native Spanish and no doubt faithfully translated into English, The Midnight Palace is one of the author's tales that were written a while ago and are aimed at a teenage audience. Essentially a horror tale by strict genre, its horror elements are present merely by the way the main villain pursues the heroes and not driven by excessive characterisation and plot detail. This enables it to be suitable for a slightly younger audience, and also presents it as a novel that seems as if it is abridged in some fashion.
Zafon's Shadow of the Wind is a brilliant book, and although his sequel Angel's Game wasn't as impressive, he still remains one of my favourite authors of the moment. The Midnight Palace takes place in India, Calcutta to be precise, and is a tale of a vengeful soul seeking to continue existence. From the very start, it's clear that they mysteries involved with the book aren't going to be as deep and tricky to solve as a standard adult thriller, and the prose itself is easy to follow, as if it has been dumbed down for an easy reading audience.
An exciting introduction in 1916 tells us of one man's sacrifice to save two twin babies, who are then separated for their safety and raised without one knowing the existence of the other. Fast forward 16 years and we meet with the boy twin, Ben, as he is ready to leave the orphanage where he has grown up and made a small group of best friends, who remain with him for this adventure. When an old lady and a girl the same age as him turn up, danger soon lurks behind them as the mysterious dark cloaked figure with strange magical powers seeks them out. Ben and his friends must solve the mystery of who is after him and the girl, and stop him from destroying them all.
Zafon clearly likes his fantasy, and it is perhaps truer to the story to brand it with this label as opposed to the horror it's given. For me, horror needs to have some sort of scare factor, and here it's just not described in enough detail for it to be a horror book. There are horror elements for sure, but it's mroe like a supernatural tale, as the evil dark cloaked figure who clearly isn't human but is more of a ghost, an entity that can do things humans can't, takes control of the novel.
Zafon creates a gang with different skill sets and presents this almost like a Famous Five book if you will, allowing each character to have their moment. He splits the group up well and gives them brief bits of the tale of their own, flicking in between them as they race across the city trying to find out who or what is after them and where they are, to try and save Ben and the girl, clearly his twin sister to us but understandably a mystery still to the rest of the teens. The characters are well versed are remain clear in your mind after the tale is over, and this to be is the mark of an author skilled in characterisation. It is true to say this of Zafon, and I have thought this to be his strength, along with the ability to present a good mystery.
There isn't much depth here, and while the book is just shy of 300 pages, the text is quite spaced and the detailed historical passages serving to provide a foundation for the story as told through some older charcters' eyes doesn't leave much to share between the 7 heroes attempting to defeat the evil being. As a result, it seems shallow and over very quickly, although I suppose this criticism is somewhat unfair of a book intended for a younger audience. I know the author is capable of deeper tales, and in Angel's Game he even goes overboard and provides too much. Therefore I can only imagine that this was intentional due to who it is aimed at.
I shall continue to read and no doubt enjoy Carlos Ruiz Zafon's work. The Prisoner of Heaven is next up from him, a direct sequel to Shadow of the Wind where Angel's Game was merely related in some ways. I have no doubt I will enjoy it, as I have done his other works. The Midnight Palace is well written, but clearly intended for a younger audience and I made short work of it. Hopefully there will be more involving some of these characters at some point, but I doubt it. Recommended, especially for teen readers.