Review: “Santa Muerte,” Cynthia Pelayo

Rating: 4 out of 5

In Cynthia Pelayo’s Santa Muerte, 17-year-old Ariana Garcia is having visions, or maybe hallucinations. She starts losing portions of her days to them. Then she finds herself in her father’s hospital room. Reynaldo Molina is a Mexican agent–he fights the drug cartels, and he’s very highly placed. That’s why Ariana changed her last name and moved to Chicago; it’s possible Reynaldo’s enemies might come for her. Perhaps Ariana should be trying to stay away from anything involving her father, but she wants to be a journalist, and in particular wants to cover stories involving the cartels, the drugs, the gangs, the missing women.

Ariana really doesn’t seem sufficiently shocked or concerned by the fact that she’s losing chunks of time and having hallucinations/visions. I’d be seriously freaking out if I were her. Especially since the visions are very odd and mysterious. They seem to be tied to a prayer card she finds in her father’s wallet, dedicated to Santa Muerte, a “saint” who can be appealed to for various favors. We never do find out why her father had that, although Santa Muerte keeps showing up in Ariana’s life. Ariana’s cousin Lynn, with whom she lives, just tattooed Santa Muerte on a man’s skin.

Ari’s mother was killed 10 months earlier when she went back to Mexico to give a lecture. Another odd thread that never gets tied off is that her father says the person who killed her mother is dead, while a young man who works for her father says they just captured the man who killed her mother. (Or at least, if it did get tied off I must have missed it.)

At one point we learn that someone called her school under false pretenses to get phone numbers and addresses of a handful of people. Despite the fact that they referred to Ari by her real name (Ariana Molina)–which is obviously something that should worry her–her school somehow knew to give out Ari’s phone number and address, even though they shouldn’t have known that “Ariana Molina” was her. There are just some rough spots and unanswered questions like this. They’re small things, though.

We learn a great deal about the cartels in Mexico and how they’re tied to gangs in the states. Most of this comes in either during the initial parts of the story, or through a presentation that Ari gives to her journalism class. On the one hand this makes things very slow in those parts of the story, but on the other hand it’s interesting information. Whether you’ll want to read it depends on your preferences as a reader.

The slow, minimalist buildup of “magical” elements is intriguing. I really like Ari as a character, and although I’d want to know more about him, I’m also intrigued by Marco, someone who wants to be her friend (or more).

This is a good book, particularly if you want to learn a few things about drug-related crime in both Mexico and the US.

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