Oscar, a boy at boarding school, meets Marina under curious circumstances. Marina and her father Hermann take Oscar under their wing, sharing their stories and offering him the first friendship he's ever known. When Marina takes Oscar to a cemetery on the last Sunday of the month to observe The Lady In Black leave a rose on an unmarked grave, it is the beginning of an adventure. Little do they know that their adventure will lead them through the darkest quarters of Barcelona and will end with their lives in great peril from a sinister creature that does not, cannot, face the light of day. Along the way we meet artists, musicians, physicians, inspectors, and Fascist barkeeps who long for the time of Franco's reign in Spain, not to mention the shadowy tunnels and caverns hidden under the city of Barcelona.
Promising enough, right? There were, I admit, a couple of scenes that I found both thrilling and disturbing -- self-animated marionettes with empty eye sockets, silver fangs for teeth, and scissors for fingers, anybody? -- but they were the standouts in an otherwise not very satisfying story.
I think my main gripe with this book was the 1980s setting. Trying to pour traditional gothic themes into a contemporary setting created a mix that simply beggared belief. I could have forgiven a lot more if it had been set one century earlier, but it's hard to get worked up about mysterious, horse-driven carriages that emerge out of the black night, or Dr Frankenstein-like creations that combine re-animated human bodies with mechanical parts at a time when jelly shoes were being worn with abandon in the western world. Evil creatures that can't be killed by a revolver might have been scary once upon a time, but in the Reagan era, we had a lot more weapons at our disposal in the arsenal.
Beyond that, Ruiz Zafón seems to play fast & loose with his timelines (reminded me of J K Rowling that way), and I was constantly distracted trying to calculate the ages of his characters based on the few dates and world events mentioned in the narrative. One of them might have had a grandfather who was 108 years old. Not impossible, to be sure, but also not likely. One girl seemed to be 19 in the 1940s and still a woman of childbearing age in the 1970s. Again, not impossible, but not likely. Also, the translator always used the word "nauseous" when the word should have been "nauseated," and it took me out of the story every time.
Still, the reader, Daniel Weyman, was quite good, with a nicely resonant voice, and I'm happy I had a new audio book to listen to in my car. Anybody who lurvs gothic tales and isn't particular about small(ish) details like grammar and timelines might very well enjoy this more than I did. Apparently it's all the rage in Spain.
Oddly, this book was marketed as a YA book in the US, which is think is a mistake. The two main characters, while 15, are rather prim despite their adventures and sleuthing, and not belonging to their own era at all. While adults might go for this sort of thing, American teens certainly won't put up with that. Not when there are sparkly vampires and snarky teens dying of cancer and prickly heroines caught up in love triangles to be read about instead.
NB: I found a copy of this audio at my local record shop.