All the Crooked Saints, Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic 978-0-545-93080-2, $18.99, 320pp, hc) October 2017.
Young adult powerhouse Maggie Stiefvater dives into magic realism with her latest book, All the Crooked Saints. Set in the fictional Colorado desert enclave of Bicho Raro, the novel follows the travails of the Soria family, who are gifted (or cursed) with the ability to perform miracles. Pilgrims come from far and wide seeking solace from their various concerns through the help of the Sorias and especially their current saint, 19-year old Daniel. The Sorias chafe under their responsibility, forced to witness the miracles but not able to assist the pilgrims as they face their secrets and fears. Stiefvater’s lush prose is evident on every page, but the plot slows to a near glacial pace early on, likely leaving many readers wondering why it takes so long to accomplish anything in this magical part of the world.
Set in 1962, All the Crooked Saints opens with Daniel and his two cousins operating a mobile pirate radio station near Bicho Raro. He is a conflicted saint, acutely feeling the pressure of his birthright. Beatriz is the practical Soria, determined to look out for her flightier relatives and help youngest cousin Joaquin realize his dream of becoming a DJ (under the dubious name “Diablo Diablo”). As the story unfolds, Daniel makes a choice that forces him to flee into the desert and hopefully escape the Soria curse. Meanwhile, a new arrival captures Beatriz’s interest and Joaquin takes his radio show in a potentially dangerous direction. Everyone else broods about the past, focuses on their own problems, and ignores whatever they can about what is happening around them. The desert gets hot, the days are long, and a priest with the head of a coyote spouts wisdom. Ultimately, it all ends happily and the Sorias have a new future to embrace. For some readers, it will be worth the wait, but others will have quit caring long before the final page appears.
There are valid questions to be asked about Stiefvater’s rose-colored portrayal of mid-century Mexican American life, (and the translation of “Bicho Raro” itself), but for the purposes of this review, I am more confused as to why the book is considered young adult in the first place. There is only one character under 18, and while 16-year-old Joaquin’s radio show is crucial to the plot, he is a barely realized character and easily replaceable. Stiefvater shifts the point of view constantly, peeking into the minds of various Sorias and pilgrims with glimpses that range from paper flower-making techniques to coping with life as a perpetually rain drenched runaway bride. It’s all very exotic, but there isn’t a lot of coming-of-age going on or any significant insight into the teen experience. Beatriz falls in love, Daniel is in love, Joaquin wants to be famous, owls are magical creatures, angry dogs will eat each other in utero, and challenging a curse can turn you into furniture. Somehow this all makes a YA novel. Maggie Stiefvater fans should go into All the Crooked Saints with lowered expectations; it might work for some of them, but it certainly didn’t work for me.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the January 2018 issue of Locus.