Mind you, I have always enjoyed a gothic novel as long as the story was creepy and intriguing, like Dracula and Frankenstein, for examples. However, I was under the impression that the genre no longer has its practitioners. My impression was proven wrong, when I discovered Carlos Ruiz Zafón and his book, The Shadow of the Wind, which made me realize the gothic genre is alive and well.
I adored The Shadow of the Wind as well as its two sequels; its story was beautiful and harrowing, and I was spellbound by it. The Shadow of the Wind opened up a new vista in my reading world. In the months that followed I specially seek out the works of Zafón, and I read and enjoyed all of them. Carlos Ruiz Zafón entered my list for favorite authors.
Two weeks ago, during a regular visit to my local library I came across The Midnight Palace, which I haven't read. I quickly loaned this book, as this is one of Zafón's earlier works prior to The Shadow of the Wind.
Set in the 1930s, the story began on a street in Calcutta. Under the cover of night, an English lieutenant took flight with a pair of baby twins under his arms. At the cost of his own life, the brave lieutenant delivered the twins, a boy and a girl named Ben and Sheere, to places of safety. Many years later, upon their 16th birthday, Ben and Sheere's lives suddenly came under threat by an assailant, whose past was shrouded in mystery. All clues pointed to a spectacular building in Calcutta – The Midnight Place, and only the twins' loyal friends could aid them and face the terror lurking under its shadows.
I did enjoy reading The Midnight Palace, but I don't think this book is as good as Zafón's later works. Make no mistake, Zafón wrote as brilliantly here as he would in his later works, and it is not hard to see how he would go on from here and write a masterpiece like The Shadow of the Wind later on. The writings in this book is top notch. So why am I saying this book is subpar to Zafóns later works? Is it the characterizations?
Well, no. This book's characterizations were surprising good, considering its short length of 200 pages. Zafón gave each character a personality of his and her own, and these characters made up a memorable and likable bunch. Having said this, I do think the protagonists, Ben and Sheree, were not portrayed with enough depths, and so the ending (which I will not spoil here) lacked the emotional impact that it could have had on the readers. This also means, I think this book would have benefitted from a longer length, where Zafón could use the additional spaces to address the character developments.
What is really holding this book back, I opine, is the worldbuilding. Hang on, am I really saying Zafón's worldbuilding is lacking here? Ok, I understand my opinion may raise some eyebrows. After all, Zafón is renowned for his vivid and beautiful depictions of Barcelona in The Shadow of the Wind and Marina, and I adore those books because of it. So what is it about the worldbuilding in this book that I found lacking?
Let me explain.
Zafón's works, especially The Shadow of the Wind series, as well as Marina, are Spanish Magic Realism novels. What is magic realism? It is a film, literary, and visual art genre where the aesthetics and the style has magical elements blended with the real world. In a magic realism novel (or film), the story presents "reality" and "magic" as the same stream of thought, and thereby presenting the magical elements in a straightforward manner. But magic realism is not the same as the fantasy genre. No, because fantasy is set in the fantasy world, where magic realism is set in the real world. Moreover, what really sets magic realism apart from fantasy is the purpose of the magical elements; in magic realism, the author uses the magical elements to highlight the character's inner experience and perception of the world, to illuminate and help us look at our reality in a different way. An example for magic realism would be Martin Scorsese's movie, Hugo (a very good movie, BTW! Check it out if you haven't seen it yet).
Zafón's works, including The Midnight Palace, are all rooted in the vein of magic realism. The Shadow of the Wind was successful, because it used the magical elements to flash out the characters' inner emotions and experiences about their pasts, love and hatred, and in the process making its readers reflect on these things in our reality. The Midnight Palace attempted to do the same, yet it came short of it, because in this book Zafón used not magic, but supernatural elements, and the story failed to adequately address the origin of this supernatural occurrence. In other words, this book had a supernatural agent in the story, but it failed to explain how did this supernatural agent came to be. Mind you, I am not asking if such a supernatural agent is "possible. No, as an avid reader of the fantasy genre I have no problem with authors using supernatural elements to tell stories. What I am saying here, without spoiling the story, is that Zafón did not address "how" this agent, an agent whose identity is the crux of the story, became supernatural. Instead, Zafón glossed over it, and as a result the story lacked the power that Zafon was trying to communicate.
Is The Midnight Palace a bad book? No, definitely not. This book may not be as good as Zafón's later works, but it is still a very good read. Under Zafón's pen, Calcutta transformed into a place of mysteries and intrigues, and his characters left lasting impressions on my mind. I think this book is still fun and worth reading, and it will find admirers among Zafón's fans.