Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick

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Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Faustino has got involved with the Mexican drugs cartel and owes money. Arturo must get it back to save his life. Powerful story of friendship, corruption and corporate exploitation with a flavour of folklore.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: October 2016
Publisher: Orion
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 1444000527

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Shortlisted for the 2018 CILIP Carnegie Medal

Anapra is a slum just outside the Mexican city of Juarez, right on the border with the United States. People scrape a living working at one or more of the American factories, which pay wages so low that workers can barely feed themselves. This is where people come to try and find their own way into the US, or pay people traffickers to do it for them. It's also a place where the drug cartels run everything and things don't end well if you get on the wrong side of the drug cartels.

Arturo is sixteen. He lives by himself in Anapra, scraping by working at an auto yard but it's tough. Still, he mainly keeps out of trouble. That is, until Faustino turns up. Arturo hasn't seen Faustino for over a year but they used to be so close that they were like brothers. Faustino has started working for a cartel and has "borrowed" a thousand dollars from his boss to pay people traffickers to get his girlfriend and baby into the States. Now he has to replace it before his boss finds out and kills him. Faustino thinks Arturo can win him the money by playing calavera, a popular gambling card game...

... but Arturo must win a thousand dollars in just 36 hours.

No spoilers, but I will say this - Saint Death isn't a book for the faint of heart. Neither is it a story in which everyone gets their just deserts, all the loose ends are tied up and you finish the last page with your heart full of hope. It's a tough read and realism isn't sacrificed to a fairy tale ending. But it does contain a personal journey that ends in true understanding and it does focus on the meaning of friendship through thick and thin.

I love the way Sedgwick often weaves folklore into his stories. In this book, he looks at the folk saint Santa Muerte, who appears as a skeleton and whose cult reveres her as not just the personification of death but also as a figure than can bring healing and also guide souls to the afterlife. The veneration of Santa Muerte is opposed by the Catholic church but she is worshipped by an increasing number of Mexicans, including members of the drug cartels. Saint Death is a story of realism but Santa Muerte is a strong and constant presence throughout it, as worshipped by Faustino and sometimes doubted, sometimes envisioned by Arturo.

It's beautifully-written with a real sense of atmosphere, menace and tension. I was rooting for Arturo to get the money and save his friend for all I was worth but I was also lost in this world of grinding poverty and violent crime, in which friendship and spirituality provides flickering but insistent lights. Sedgwick begins each chapter with a reflective passage about the relationship between big corporations and the workers they exploit, global trade agreements entrenching that exploitation, and how these things can propel waves of migration. You'd think maybe these passages could spoil the build-up in tension in the main narrative but I don't think they do; rather they illuminate the story with valuable context.

Saint Death is a difficult book but it's a beautiful one, too.

Also: I'm going to teach myself how to play Calavera!

If Saint Death sounds like your kind of thing, you might also enjoy In Darkness by Nick Lake, set in two timeframes: the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake and the 19th century revolution led by Toussaint l'Ouverture. Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman also mixes a little bit of magic realism in a story about gang culture - this time in the UK.

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Buy Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick at


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