This rendering of a unique diaspora in crisis mixes reborn saints and Santeria, Spanish and Hebrew, pirates and monsters, and lots of music in a fascinating fantasy symphony. Author Daniel Jose Older imagines a community desperate to get back to their Caribbean island that sunk into the sea, or ready to put down roots for good in Brooklyn, depending on whom you ask. If you ask Mateo, the main character, he's not into all that saint stuff and doesn't think the island can rise again. He wants to stay on the sidelines, play his piano, think about music as often as possible, and not get involved in the politics. But what choice does he have when he finds out he's the initiated child of one of the island's main saints? And that the girl he likes, Chela, the one he saw murder someone, may be a saint as well? Mateo's Tia Lucia tells him not to trust anyone, but he falls in with Chela anyway, and her cousin, Tolo, a pirate, but not the pirate in charge who knows all the island's secrets. The storyline is sometimes as complex as the diaspora's cultural mix and as the tension builds between the factions, readers learn more about the island's many mysteries -- but not always as fast as they may like. Like what are these monster things running around anyway? Where did they come from? Mateo's relationship with his wise Tia Lucia keeps him and the story grounded and her household keeps things entertaining with her nighttime baking, raucous parties, and the ghost of her partner always around to offer advice. Mateo's relationship with Chela, on the other hand, challenges him to find his braver side, to take action, and to finally tap into his spiritual side that was there all along.
Fans of Older's Shadowshaper Cypher know that the author likes to dissect difficult social themes in his work. Here he imagines some in a community covering up their own uncomfortable history and others crying out for and facing the truth of who they are -- they always thought their idyllic island stayed far away from anything having to do with the slave trade, but guess what? It's easier to have this debate through a fantasy book than in a contentious school board meeting and the critical thinking practice it provides young adult readers is a wonderful bonus to this complex and fascinating tale.