Sunday, February 19, 2017

Book Review: City of Saints & Thieves

Just when you think you know what's happening... another clue has you at the edge of your seat. The brilliant writing of Natalie Anderson will keep you turning the pages until you learn along with the incredible protagonist of this novel, Tina, exactly what happened to her mother.

Here's the gist - Tina is part of the Goondas, the local gang that she's worked with as a skilled thief since her mother was murdered. Kiki, Tina's little sister, is safe in a boarding school, mostly insulated from the life Tina leads on the streets. Tina and her mother originally came to Kenya as refugees from Congo. Tina's mother worked as a maid for Mr. Greyhill in the Ring, the rich, security-guarded part of Sangui City until her tragic murder. Since then, Tina has scraped by and focused on one goal - survival and justice for her mother. When the opportunity arises to rob Mr. Greyhill's estate is where the adventure truly begins. Everything she thought she knew comes into question about Mr. Greyhill, her mother, her family and her past - and you'll be hooked through the twists and turns of Tina's journey. Her determination, strength and pure grit makes her unlike any other YA protagonist I've seen.

She takes you through her story narrating through her 'rules' of theiving:
Rule 2: Trust no one. Or if you must, trust them like you'd trust a street dog around fresh meat. (7)

And the glimpses Anderson's narration gives into Tina's deeper levels are just effortless - it feels so natural:
I got better and better at thievery, moving on to actually stealing cash, jewelry, electronics. And soon, when I was creeping into a dark shop or a merchant's plush home, or bumping with choreographed precision through a crowd toward a mark, I found that I was more myself than at any other time. I was a new person. A thief. Solid, strong. Unbroken. (121) 

Themes emerge far beyond the bonds of family strength - this novel deals with the horrors of war crimes, assault, abuse, extortion, ethics and rules of conflict, refugees, revenge, socio-economic disparity, racism, and beyond. Much of this is brought by gentle comparisons and contrasts that leave all the What if's and If I knew then what I know now moments of wisdom for such a young character:

I look out the window. We pass a break in the houses and trees, and I catch a glimpse of the dark Indian Ocean. Sangui: city-state on a hill, port to the world, and a fine bloody place to do business. You do the dirty work down there in town, and the Ring is where you retreat... I should know. I've seen it all up close. I may live down in the dirt now, but once upon a time, a fortress in the Ring was my home. (15) 

If I hadn't seen them in the garden that night, maybe my whole life would be different. Maybe I could have put her death behind me, gone to school with Kiki, convinced myself it was a robbery gone wrong, like Mr. G said. I could have tried to forget. But I did see them. (60)

It occurs to me that this is what the Goondas do when they talk about death too. When one of them dies, they bring out a bottle and drink until no one can think about anything anymore. Goondas and nuns, drinking to the dead. (252) 

Anderson truly created something special with this novel, and her first-hand experience working with refugees seeps into the pages throughout the novel, making her narrator while fragile, seem so incredibly raw and real. Her dedication says it all "For all the girls who are more than just refugees."

School Library Journal recommends Grades 7-10, I'd push this further Grades 8 (maybe), 9-12, just because of the nature of some of the crime, violence, and trauma depicted in the novel. A sprinkle of romance here too, but nothing more than a kiss or two.

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