Book Review: Sanctum: Guards of the Shadowlands, Book One by Sarah Fine

13482750By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This month we are taking a look at Latin@s in science fiction and fantasy. On Monday, we had a Q&A with Sarah Fine, author of the Guards of the Shadowlands series. Today, we take a closer look at her debut novel, first of the series, Sanctum, which features a 17-year-old Latina protagonist.

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK“My plan: Get into the city. Get Nadia. Find a way out. Simple.”

A week ago, seventeen-year-old Lela Santos’s best friend, Nadia, killed herself. Today, thanks to a farewell ritual gone awry, Lela is standing in paradise, looking upon a vast gated city in the distance—hell. No one willingly walks through the Suicide Gates, into a place smothered in darkness and infested with depraved creatures. But Lela isn’t just anyone—she’s determined to save her best friend’s soul, even if it means sacrificing her eternal afterlife.

As Lela struggles to find Nadia, she’s captured by the Guards, enormous, not-quite-human creatures that patrol the dark city’s endless streets. Their all-too-human leader, Malachi, is unlike them in every way except one: his deadly efficiency. When he meets Lela, Malachi forms his own plan: get her out of the city, even if it means she must leave Nadia behind. Malachi knows something Lela doesn’t—the dark city isn’t the worst place Lela could end up, and he will stop at nothing to keep her from that fate.

MY TWO CENTS: Sanctum by Sarah Fine offers an engaging blend of fantasy, action, romance, and contemporary social issues, sure to appeal to a variety of readers. Protagonist Lela Santos has spent most of her life in foster homes and the sexual abuse she suffers at one causes her to attempt suicide. Her abuser interrupts the suicide, but Lela was gone long enough to glimpse hell. When her best friend Nadia kills herself and Lela dies accidentally soon after, she is determined to save her friend from the city that preys on souls’ worst fears, insecurities, and vices.

Problem is: Lela doesn’t belong there. The city won’t sustain her, which puts her at risk of dying–again.

Another problem: Creepy creatures called Mazikin claim broken souls and are preparing to bust out of the city. The fights are fierce between the Mazikin and the Guards, and Lela proves to be a badass even before any formal fight training.

Yet another problem: Lela is falling in love with Malachi, the leader of the Guards. And while the romantic tension between them is hotter than Hades itself, a love affair in this setting isn’t likely to last. Plus, Lela is still healing from traumas experienced in her mortal life, which means she doesn’t easily trust people even in the afterlife.

One of the things I liked most about Sanctum was the development of the characters’ emotional journeys through pain and into healing. They all suffered so severely in life they decided to commit suicide, and that decision landed them in a place that continues their torment. Still, as difficult as it is, in life and this afterlife, some are able to overcome the worst experiences and find purpose in life and even love. I won’t give away what happens when Lela finds Nadia, but I will say I wasn’t entirely surprised at Nadia’s response to the rescue effort. The point that we all heal at our own pace is an important one to remember (in real life) when trying to help people with mental health issues.

TEACHING TIPS: One thing the Common Core State Standards asks is for students to compare different treatments of the same subject or analyze how one work of literature has influenced another. One way Sanctum could be used in the classroom, even if only parts are used, is to compare Fine’s version of hell with other versions of hell and purgatory in literature. Discussions about the afterlife and the particular fate of those who commit suicide would be appropriate in higher level English classes that consider the Bible’s influence on literature and history/social studies courses that include a comparative study of religions.

AUTHOR: Sarah Fine is the author of the Guards of the Shadowlands, a YA urban fantasy series (Skyscape/Amazon Children’s Publishing), including Sanctum (October 2012) and Fractured (October 2013). The third and final book in this series comes out in October 2014. In May 2014, Putnam/Penguin published Scan, the first of two thrillers she co-authored with Walter Jury. Her gothic young adult novel Of Metal and Wishes will be published by McElderry/Simon & Schuster in August 2014. When she’s not writing, she’s psychologizing. Sometimes she does both at the same time. The results are unpredictable.

Author Sarah Fine Talks About Hell, Trauma, and Creating Diverse Characters

13482750By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This month, we are taking a look at Latin@s in science fiction and fantasy. Today, we have a Q&A with Sarah Fine, author of Sanctum and Fracture. (Book three is in the works.) Here is a partial description of Sanctum, which features Lela Santos, a Latina main character, a foster child from Rhode Island who has experienced abandonment, neglect, and sexual abuse:

A week ago, seventeen-year-old Lela Santos’s best friend, Nadia, killed herself. Today, thanks to a farewell ritual gone awry, Lela is standing in paradise, looking upon a vast gated city in the distance—hell. No one willingly walks through the Suicide Gates, into a place smothered in darkness and infested with depraved creatures. But Lela isn’t just anyone—she’s determined to save her best friend’s soul, even if it means sacrificing her eternal afterlife.

Cindy: First, let me say that I loved Sanctum. The only part that frustrated me was how long it took for Lela and Malachi to kiss :.)

Sarah: I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and I hope the kiss was worth the wait!

Cindy: The premise of Lela going into hell to retrieve Nadia is similar to the Greek myth Orpheus and Eurydice, but obviously this is not a retelling. How influenced were you by that myth or mythology in general?

Sarah: I actually didn’t think about that particular myth at all as I was generating the idea for this book. When I read that comparison in a review, I was like … you know, that’s actually quite apt! I was a little more influenced by Jewish and Mesopotamian mythology. The Mazikin are mentioned in the Talmud as evil spirits or demons, and the inhuman Guards are very loosely based off protective deities called the lamassu in Mesopotamian myths, where they’re described as half-man, half-bull.

Cindy: Your setting is an interesting kind of hell, with the buildings being alive and able to feed off its inhabitants. How did you create and develop this idea? What kind of research do you do for fantasy world creation?

Sarah: This idea was inspired by the way C.S. Lewis wrote about his version of hell/purgatory in The Great Divorce. The “grey town” is this massive, depressing city where it’s always raining, always twilight—and here’s the part that really got me: people could have whatever they wanted, but it was of low quality. That Grey Town at the very beginning of that book completely inspired the dark city in Sanctum. Obviously, I changed it a lot, including the idea that the city is really one living, breathing entity that grows off the depression of the people residing within, but I give Lewis the credit for the basic idea (and he was clearly influenced by Dante in that work, so he deserves credit as well.)

17667916Cindy: Do you continue to work as a child psychologist? Did your work experiences help you to portray the emotional recovery Lela and the others have to go through in order to heal from trauma?

Sarah: I do, but in a different capacity than I have in the past, when I did a lot of home-based evaluations and therapy. Now I direct programs and supervise clinicians who provide those services to children and adolescents who are at risk for out-of-home placement in psychiatric hospitals or residential treatment facilities. Our goal is to work with families to keep these kids at home and in their communities, where research clearly shows they do best.

My work definitely influences how I see the complexity of trauma and what it takes to heal. A huge percentage of our clients have experienced some type of trauma, and usually not what we think of as single event, “simple” trauma. Though that can be devastating, it’s actually easier to treat than the complex developmental trauma we often see, where the trauma is more chronic and ongoing. This is actually the type of trauma Lela’s experienced—multiple disruptions in attachments, several instances of abuse or neglect. As I show her fragile but growing relationship with Diane, her foster mom, that’s always on my mind. I definitely explore more of that in book three.

Cindy: In addition to the great action scenes, this story focused on the characters’ battles with their personal demons. Thinking about author choices here…because of the issues the characters face, this story could have been developed as a YA contemporary. What led you to decide to develop the story as fantasy instead?

Sarah: I guess it’s a preference thing. There are some brilliant, brilliant authors who have explored these issues with contemporary YA (Nina LaCour, for example), but I wanted to place these characters in an environment where the depression was a tangible, living thing. This fantasy world gave me the chance to explore a lot of philosophical issues, like what is heaven, really, and how could it possibly be the same for everyone? What if you’re not emotionally ready to be there and accept what it offers? To me, that’s not a religious question, but a more concrete way of exploring something very emotional–Can you have some version of that goodness in your life, no matter where you are? What would you have to understand and embrace to receive that?

Cindy: Again with author choices….Obviously you could have created characters of any race, ethnicity, etc. What made you decide to create a Latina MC?

Sarah Fine

Sarah Fine

Sarah: Lela Santos really just materialized to me in that form. However, I will tell you that the majority of the school children in the urban core of Rhode Island, where Lela’s from, are Latino/a. Also, in general, children of color are overrepresented in terms of involvement in the juvenile justice system in this country (with harsher sentences as well—we’ve had court workers outright say that they’re harder on these kids because of the racism they face within society, which is a totally twisted logic that over-penalizes those children and in my opinion perpetuates that racism). Once I considered those facts, it seemed wrong to consider making her anything other than what she was from the beginning.

Cindy: Your secondary characters have interesting back stories as well, which suggests to me that including diversity in your writing is important to you. Some authors shy away from including diverse characters for fear of “getting it wrong.” Did you have any concerns about creating diverse characters? What advice, if any, would you give to fantasy writers about diversity in the genre?

Sarah: This story takes place in the afterlife, and the idea that the only people residing there would be Anglo-American, or any kind of American, is pretty laughable. The world is a BIG place—and the afterlife would be the same, minus the country divisions. Everyone would be there together, right? The dark city where most of Sanctum takes place is where everyone in the world who committed suicide has gone (with some exceptions, I think, but that’s a different interview!). I felt very strongly that having Lela coincidentally meet up with people who were American would just be false and icky.

I did have concerns, of course, because I really wanted these characters to have an impact, and to feel like real people. I did quite a bit of research. I also focused on writing from the inside out, trying to focus on each of those characters as human beings who loved and hoped and despaired in their own ways. I don’t think I’m some kind of expert on this. I’m certain I’ve made mistakes. But I’m curious and always wanting to learn about people who are different from me. And I started from the premise that all those diverse characters—Lela, Malachi, Ana, Takeshi—were on their own profoundly personal journeys, armed only with their intelligence, resilience, perseverance, and the capacity to risk their lives and hearts for a chance at peace. The rest flowed from that.

Check out these other works by Sarah Fine:

17733363  13451410  17303139

Through Reading, Anything Is Possible

 

For our first set of posts, each of us will respond to the question: “Why Latin@ Kid Lit?” to address why we created a site dedicated to celebrating books by, for, or about Latin@s.

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

Our house was an oasis in the Chicago neighborhood crumbling around us. The house on the left was torn down after Old Man Louie died. The building on the right was bulldozed after some kids set it on fire. Inside our little haven, my parents encouraged me to read. Through books, I left that neighborhood to meet interesting characters in beautiful places who were struggling with life, love, and purpose, and who were trying to become free mentally, physically, or spiritually.

Dr. Seuss3My parents moved us into better neighborhoods. Books moved me into a broader world of ideas and possibilities. A love for literature has made all the difference in my life. Now, I teach and write because I want children from all kinds of backgrounds to realize that, through literacy, anything is possible.

This may sound naïve, simplistic, or overly optimistic, but I honestly believe it.

I understand the challenges young people face because I’ve worked with middle and high school students for thirteen years. I’ve met the tattooed freshman girl whose education was interrupted because her mom had to move from place to place. At age fourteen, she had the reading level of a sixth grader. But guess what? She earned all As and Bs, joined a sport, and quickly became a leader in our school.

I’ve met the sixteen-year-old freshman boy who earned an in-school suspension for verbally and physically confronting a female teacher during the first week of school. He continued to struggle, earning Ds and Fs in his classes. But guess what? He read a book independently for the first time ever. He said he knew the teachers cared about him, and once he came to talk to me, tears streaming down his face after his girlfriend broke up with him via text message. He had made a collage with movie tickets and other mementos for their one-year anniversary that would never happen.

I’ve also met the jaded seventh-grade boy who asked me straight-out one day, “Why are you the only minority teacher in our school?”

All of these students are young Latin@s. They need safe places, trusted people to talk to, and answers to their questions. As a teacher who sees them for forty-five minutes a day, I do my best, and one of the most significant things I can do is encourage them to read. I can’t solve their problems at home or with their friends, but I can pass along my belief—given to me by my parents—that literacy is important and life-changing.

I want my students to develop the skills needed for academic and professional success. I also want them to enjoy a lifetime of beautiful places and interesting characters. I want them to have access to lots and lots of books with characters who look, speak, and act like them. Previous posts have outlined why it’s crucial for readers to “see themselves” in literature. But I also want them to see beyond their current selves. I want them to see realistic and fantastical futures.  I want them to realize anything is possible.

Yes, you can be a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Here, read a picture book about Sonia Sotomayor.

Yes, you can “escape” for a while and travel through the depths of the afterlife to save your best friend’s soul. Here, read Sanctum by Sarah Fine.

Yes, you can be a civil rights activist. Here, read biographies about César Chávez and Delores Huerta.

In the very distant future, if you discover you are a clone created to keep someone else alive, remember this: you will still have an identity and choices. For now, though, question whether science fiction will someday become nonfiction. Here, read The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer.

Yes, you will survive your teen years. More than that, you will thrive. You’ll learn about love and family and friendship and acceptance and perseverance and integrity. Here, read Margarita Engle, Alex Sanchez, René Saldaña, Jr., Gary Soto, and Guadalupe Garcia McCall.

I’m involved with Latin@s In Kid Lit because I believe all children should have books in their hands, even when they’re too young to turn the pages, and they should all be told again and again, “Oh, the places you’ll go.”

Sonia Sotomayor: Supreme Court Justice    Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers    The House of the Scorpion (Matteo Alacran, #1)    Sanctum (Guards of the Shadowlands, #1)    Buried Onions   Bait