Tuesday, November 13, 2012

"Sanctum" by Sarah Fine- Deep Themes, Problematic Execution

**Some Spoilers Included**

~Official Synopsis

"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.


I really wanted to like this book. The idea of a female friendship so strong that a girl would forge a path through hell (or something very similar to it) to save a friend is story that needs telling as often as possible. But, as too often happens, angsty teen-romance ends up taking over the narrative and shoves aside anything that could have been meaningful in this story and reinforces the basically sexist assumption that anything can be fixed if a girl can only find the right boy. 

"Sanctum" is a book that attempts to deal with some dark themes. Both rape and suicide figure heavily into the narrative and Fine tries to deal with the subjects as sensitively as possible. Lela starts off as a very sympathetic character as she has overcome a lot in her short life. Shuffled from one foster home to another, she has suffered the worst kinds of abuse from the people who should have been protecting her. Lela almost succeeds in killing herself after being repeatedly assaulted by foster parent but is able to overcome her past with the help of the unexpected friendship of Nadia. 

Nadia is the golden-girl as far as the outside world is concerned. She's beautiful, popular and grows up with the kind of affluence most kids can only dream of. But she and Lela are kindred spirits thanks to dysfunctional homes and their unlikely friendship, while baffling to the outside world, makes sense to the two girls. Lela feels an uncommon loyalty to Nadia because she goes against the in-crowd pressure to only maintain friendships within her own clique and pushes Lela to hope for more in life than just getting-by. 

But Nadia, like many other teens, gets bogged down in despair and after finding that numbing herself with drugs doesn't work, she takes her own life. Lela doesn't intentionally follow Nadia into the afterworld, but after a fatal accident sends her to the afterlife she recognizes the Suicide Gates from her own suicide attempt and, instead of drifting into the quiet ease of an undefined paradise, she runs into the dreary Shadowlands in hopes of saving Nadia. 

If "Sanctum" has stayed with the story described in the synopsis, it could have been a great book. But after the initial set-up, one that happens to be pretty good, Fine drops the ball and moves on to a very Twilight-ish romance that undermines everything I had liked about the book up to that point. My main issue with "Sanctum" comes from the fact that Lela is so traumatized by her rape that she can't stand to have anyone touch her- until she meets Malachi.

Malachi, the love interest, fits the mold of the teenage dream: the good looking bad-ass who happens to be oh-so sensitive to the needs of a damaged young woman. Malachi is also, despite looking like a teenager, much older than Lela. The love story doesn't quite follow the mold of the Edward-Bella dynamic but I was very much bothered by the fact Lela's problems could be essentially cured by the insta-love storyline. Lela flashes back to her rape often. Every time she is touched by anyone, including Nadia, she freezes up in panic. I can appreciate these moments because they have the ring of authenticity to them, even though I do think they could be triggering to any rape victim that reads the book.  So it's problematic that her aversion to touch could be overcome shortly after meeting Malachi (at least when he touches her) even when she cannot tolerate a hug from a friend she'd literally go to hell for.  Much is made of Malachi's sensitivity to Lela's fear of being touched, but the fact that Lela's trauma is mostly overcome by her desire for Malachi does not do justice to the emotional journey of a rape victim in my opinion.  

"Sanctum" isn't just about the grim topics of rape and suicide; Fine also tries to tackle the nature of the afterlife. I've read a number of books that have tried to address the notion of where a soul goes after a person commits suicide and Fine's version, while not totally unique, has its own flair. Instead of demons her afterlife is populated by creatures known as "Mazikin" (demons by another name really) and her not-quite-purgatory (the "Shadowlands" in this case) has an interesting mix of hope and despair. In some respects I liked this part of the story because it had something to say about setting aside superficial concerns and focusing on the things that really matter. But much of the story is told in an info-dump fashion and the clunkiness of the writing tends to detract from the overall flow.

Another thing that never really makes sense is how Malachi came to be the captain of the Shadowland Guards. He's human, they're not, and the how and why he came to lead them or why they don't like him isn't particularly clear. Fine offers one explanation here:
     "Was it just me, or did the Guards at the Station seem less than eager to help him?" I wondered because he'd come to rescue me after what I'd done.
      Raphael somehow read my mind. "Don't worry, it's not you. Malachi is a controversial character among the Guard. He is their Captain, but he is not one of them. They were created to function as a unit, but he often operates alone or with Ana, who is human like him. He is the most merciless of them all but also the most principled. He has changed some policies for dealing with the Mazikin in recent years, and the other Guards do not like it. He comes from a different place then they do, and his future is different from theirs. As it has been with all their human leaders, it is hard for the other guards to understand him, and some of them don't try."
I don't know about you, but that last paragraph was too vague to be compelling, or convincing, to me and I couldn't help but roll my eyes at the "most merciless" and "most principled" part of that quote.

The rest of the book follows in much the same vein as the previous paragraph with a lot of generalized explanations that don't really flesh out the story. And, unfortunately, Lela loses a lot of her good qualities as the book goes on in her determination to do things her way. Part of the idealization of Malachi's character requires him to cater to every whim of Lela's, no matter how pointless, and much of the story seems aimless as a result. The ending only adds an extra level of silliness with a deus ex machina twist that only serves to set up the story for a sequel rather than follow the narrative to a logical conclusion.

If Fine had kept the story primarily about Lela and Nadia I think "Sanctum" could have been something special--though some tweaks to the writing would have also been necessary. I'd hoped for a story about an unbreakable friendship, but Fine unfortunately chooses to toss an interesting concept and instead write another generic teen romance.

2 out of 5 stars

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