Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick

The Blurb On The Back:

Anapra, Mexico.

Beyond the fence lies America, the Land of the Free.  But freedom doesn’t come cheap.

Tonight, Arturo must gamble not only for his friend’s freedom, but for his friend’s life – while his own hangs in the balance.

Can he cheat Death* herself?

* Saint Death.  She of pure bone and charcoal-black eye, she of absolute loyalty and neutral morality, holy patron to rich and poor, to prostitute and narco-lord, criminal and police-chief.  A folk saint, a rebel angel, a sinister guardian. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Arturo is a teenager who lives in Anapra on the US/Mexico border and works for a local garage, supplementing his low pay by playing calavera (a card game).  One day he’s visited by Faustino, a childhood friend of his who he hasn’t seen in over a year.  Faustino is a lookout for one of the local gangs who work for a drug cartel and he’s screwed up badly: he stole $1000 from the $20,000 he was holding for his gang leader, El Carnero to pay for his girlfriend and baby to be trafficked to the USA and the chance of a new life.  Faustino thought he’d have time to earn the money back but El Carnero is coming for it tomorrow night. Faustino’s only chance is if Arturo plays in a high stakes calavera game that night and wins him the money but nothing is without risk in Anapra and Arturo quickly realises that his own life also hangs in the balance …

Marcus Sedgwick’s contemporary YA novel is a dark, stark look at the harsh realities of life in a Mexican border town and although it’s a difficult and bleak read, it makes you think about the lives and limited opportunities available to the people, which drives many into crime and how US and western policy and businesses contributes to that.  Sedgwick does an excellent job of weaving in Arturo and Faustino’s backstories to make them each sympathetic (a scene between Arturo and his father is particularly hard hitting) while also explaining their choices but I found the triangle element with Faustino’s girlfriend, Eva, lacked that subtlety and depth to make me care about her.  The Saint Death of the title is forbidden by the Catholic Church but nonetheless worshipped by many given that death surrounds so many of them and Sedgwick makes you understand why some would put their faith in it given how capricious death is in the region.  Although El Carnero is a little two-dimensional you’re left in no doubt of the power the narco gangs have and how merciless they are.  An interlude with the owners of a bar, though, didn’t add much and I’d have preferred more of the boys’ friendship.  There’s a lot of violence in the book and more sensitive teens may find it difficult to read, but I think this is a well-written, thought-provoking book and definitely worth checking out.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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