Originally published in Spain in 1995 as Las luces de septiembre, the third book in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s Mist Trilogy series was finally translated into English and republished in June 2013 with the title The Watcher in the Shadows. A mad toymaker’s evil French doppelgänger is the subject of Zafón’s wonderful, Jekyll-and-Hyde-ish YA fantasy. Evil French Doppelgänger is also the name of my new band.
France in 1937 was a nation on the brink. The Sauvelle family suffers its own pre-war tragedy when the debts of their recently deceased patriarch force them to abandon their comfortable Parisian life for a modest home on the Normandy coast. Madame Sauvelle, Simone, takes a job as the housekeeper for a reclusive toymaker and engineer, Lazarus Jann, at the massive estate of Cravenmoore. Her young son, Dorian, finds pleasure in cartography and the magic of Jann’s thousands of automatons that wander the grounds and populate his castle. Teenage Irene’s pleasure is derived from spending time with Hannah, a girl her age who works for Jann as a cook, and Ismael, Hannah’s handsome older cousin. Ismael is as weathered and world-weary as a sixteen-year-old orphaned fisherman can be, but his clever mind and shy charm endear Irene and Ismael to each other.
As Irene and Dorian grow more comfortable with their new lives, Simone struggles with her situation. Simone is the character with whom adults will connect the most. Not because she’s grown up, but because the emotions she deals with are at a level most kids can’t comprehend yet. She doesn’t want to be in Cravenmoore, but she’s a single mother with few job options and no money, so she must make do with what she’s offered. She tries to convince herself to be happy with the life she has and not regret the life she lost. She settles in under Jann’s employ, but that’s all it is: settling. Even when Jann flirts with her, she is flattered by it and could probably talk herself into a romantic relationship, but it’s not what she wants. She’s lost what she wanted and now can choose to be either miserable or make do.
But Watcher isn’t really about Simone. She’s the catalyst, but, like Hannah, her role is really to up the stakes and serve as a vehicle for several infodumps. Oddly enough, Watcher isn’t even about Lazarus Jann, who clearly knows a helluva lot more than he’s sharing. The leads of this fantasy-twinged horror story are Irene and Ismael. They are bold and brave even when frightened. They don’t just face certain death, they look it dead in the eyes and scream “NO!” They aren’t starry-eyed lovers, nor are they battle-hardened warriors. They’re both too savvy for such nonsense. They are kids caught between the frivolities of youth and the responsibilities of adulthood. They grow up fast during the events of Watcher, so by the time WWII comes around a few years later it only reinforces the darkness they already suffered.
Watcher is a book that works well for young adults and older kids. It even works well for boring, old, thirtysomethings like me who wear orthopedic tennis shoes and drive a mid-sized commuter car and yell at those damn kids to get off their lawns. Zafón writes simply but not plainly. He lacks the imaginative flair of some of his mid-1990s contemporaries, but where some authors fall in love with purple prose, Zafón can paint a scene with concise description and easy to understand metaphors and analogies. I don’t mean he’s not creative. He has figured out how describe just enough of the action and reactions to make it clear what is happening while still making the text readable. He doesn’t get lost in the flowery weeds of superfluous adjectives, nor do his characters spew grand soliloquies. They speak as honestly and earnestly as he writes. I’m not sure if this is a trait unique to Zafón, one common amongst Spanish/Castilian YA authors, or the style of his era, but it’s incredibly refreshing.
To be frank, I loved this book. Sometimes the story gets bogged down in set pieces that want to be mise-en-scène but never really rise above background curiosities. It’s not a perfect book, but it is a well-written, well-crafted tale full of unique characters with full personalities. In a world of YA fiction where characters are either Edward and Bella or Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen, Irene and Ismael are a much-needed breath of fresh air.
The Watcher in the Shadows is available now from Little, Brown.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.