Review: Sanctum by Sarah Fine
When Laura and I chatted with the folks from Amazon Children's Publishing at the ALA Midwinter meeting earlier this year, they were heavily pushing Sarah Fine's Sanctum as "the next Angelfall." While on some level I understand the comparison--Angelfall features angels who are quite demonic, Sanctum is set in an afterlife full of demon-like creatures--the two books aren't read-alikes and likely don't share a audience.
With that said, as a fan of adult urban fantasy, Sanctum hits where so many other young adult novels billed as urban fantasy miss; it's a creative and unique novel I'd recommend to fans of the genre, teen or adult.
Lela Santos, who's spent much of her life in the foster care system, is finally settled into a good life at the beginning of Sanctum. She's thinking about college--something she never believed possible; she has an unlikely best friend in the form of Nadia, who's the popular girl Lela never believed would be her friend; she has a stable life in a safe home. That crumbles when Lela's best friend kills herself in a bout of depression Lela didn't see.
Racked with grief and guilt, Lela begins to have visions of her friend tormented in a horrible place. In her distraught frame-of-mind, she tries to find closure about Nadia's death, but instead (stay with me here--this sounds a bit wacky, but it all makes sense in the story) she winds up dead thanks to a freak accident. Lela plummets into a terrifying underworld, the same place she saw in her visions. Determined to find Nadia and figure out a way for them both to escape, Lela enters the Dark City, a terrifying, shadowy place where lost souls wander.
This city is a scary place. Food is inedible, demon-like creatures called Mazikin wander the streets looking for bodies to possess, and the guardians of this creepy place are pretty scary too.
"You got it. Once a Mazikan takes possession, there's no going back. The person looks and sounds the same as before. They even have some of the same memories and skills. But the person's soul is gone."
"Like, gone forever? It just gets snuffed out?"
She grimaced. "No. It gets banished to the Mazikan homeland, the place even the Mazikin are desperate to escape. If there's an actual hell, that's probably it."
"So these people end up in hell, not because of anything they did, but but because they were unlucky?" I'd gotten the sense that there was some justice in all of this afterlife stuff, but that definitely didn't sound fair.
While I can think of similar worlds (the closest being the Underworld in Rachel Vincent's Soul Screamers series), Sanctum takes place in a very distinctive and memorable setting, which is so refreshing for a YA urban fantasy.
That's not to see the world-building is flawless (I had confusion about the way the underworld and our world connect), but it's complex and full of consequences, which is a tremendous win for me.
I honestly cannot think of an underworld-type setting in YA that's quite for gritty, bleak and disturbing.
(Yes, that's a compliment.)
Lela soon encounters the fierce guardians of the city and their leader Malachi. Unsurprisingly, Malachi is young, attractive, and all the things paranormal YA love interests are made of. And yet, he's more developed, more intriguing and more sympathetic than your usual fare in this sort of novel, YA or adult. Malachi has a heartbreaking, difficult backstory, and his internal pain serves as an odd compliment to Lela's equally, yet differently, damaged psyche--they "get" one another. Hence, I believed in the growing trust between these two damaged people who had no reason to trust anyone.
I did have one issue with the Malachi-Lela relationship, which is the same as I have with relationships in YA vampire novels, which relates to physical age versus actual years "lived" of Malachi, the love interest. Because this is a new relationship, I'm hoping this is addressed in the sequel(s). I do think that Sarah Fine has developed mature, and thoroughly complicated, characters that they will figure out a way to navigate their relationship amidst all of this stickiness. Fingers crossed because I really like Sanctum despite my discomfort with this one element of the romantic relationship.
The last standout aspect of Sanctum is the sensitive manner in which tough subjects like mental illness are handled.
I often don't finish reading novels with mental health as a plot point/device because it's something I scrutinize quite a bit and it often feels undeveloped and, frankly, manipulative. However, in this case, despite that multiple characters suffer from various mental health issues such as PTSD and depression, it doesn't feel exploitative. Particularly notable is Lela's guilt over Nadia's death, of not seeing how distressed her best friend was. When this eventually comes to a head, it's one of the most notable moments in Sanctum.
Likewise, the notion of hell and the afterlife doesn't read as preachy or moralizing. It's interesting to me that Fine could achieve this given the structure of Sanctum's world. The torment of this underworld is painful, brutal, but it also respects the people who find themselves there due to the circumstances of their mortal lives.
As I mentioned early in this review, I don't think Sanctum is a novel for everyone. It really follows the rules of urban fantasy as opposed to paranormal romance, which is more common in YA (and I've noticed that a number of avid YA reviewers I follow haven't particularly enjoyed Sanctum). However, the folks whom I will be shoving Sanctum at are urban fantasy fans and readers looking for something gritty and unusual in their YA fare.
Note: Sanctum reads as a complete story, without a cliffhanger, as is so common in YA series; it does, however, set the stage for the sequel, so not all plot threads are tied up. (I am trying to be better about noting this in my reviews of books that are part of a series--it's important information, right?)
Disclosure: A finished copy of Sanctum was provided to me by New Leaf Literary & Media.