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Review: All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

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A desert is a lot like an ocean, if you replace all of the water with air. It stretches out and out and out in unfathomable distance and, in the absence of sunlight, turns to pure black. Sounds become secrets, impossible to verify as true until the light returns. It is not empty merely because you cannot see all of it. And you know in your heart that it isn’t—that it is the opposite of empty once it is dark, because things that do not like to be watched emerge when all of the light is gone. There is no way to know the shape of them, though, until your hand is on them.

Where do I even begin. This is one of those book that feel practically tailor-made to my preferences. It’s my catnip, pure bait – slow-paced, magical realism kind of deal with lovely prose. It would be more of a surprise if I didn’t love it. I have been warned that the author was seriously ill while writing it, that it’s different, that people generally like it less than the others. And after finishing I’m like, are you kidding? As the book itself says, perfection is an impossibility. But it sure came damn close.

Bicho Raro, Colorado is a strange settlement, home to the Sorias, a family of saints. They have the unique capability to grant miracles to anyone who comes seeking one. A miracle gives a physical manifestation to a person’s inner darkness. Some grow giant, others lose the ability to speak, become blind, turn into an animal. Then it’s up to the pilgrim to figure out how to perform a second miracle and get rid of it – the Sorias are not allowed to interfere or the darkness falls on them as well and a saint’s darkness is a terrible thing.

It was often so easy to identify the darkness from the outside. But from the inside, your darkness was indistinguishable from your other thoughts. It could take forever to learn yourself.

As you can imagine, this book deals heavily with mental health. With shame and all the repressed feelings made terribly real and brought to the surface, until they must be addressed. Until you have to admit what’s haunting you, and face your fear, and forgive yourself.

It’s not a terribly eventful book. The pace is languid, the conflict is entirely interpersonal, and it follows mostly the daily life of Sorias and some of the pilgrims come to visit them. There is a plot arc, and the ending is both cathartic and satisfying. It also reads surprisingly fast, given the above. But it will appeal mostly to those of us who prefer a more slice of life approach.

The characters are, fittingly, very colourful. There is Beatriz, who thinks she has no feelings (I especially loved her arc and how that was dealt with). Joaquin, who has his own pirate radio station. Daniel, the current Saint of Bicho Raro. Hard-working Pete who is the only person neither a Soria nor a pilgrim. And so many others. Perhaps too many of them for a book that’s not very long – I felt like many didn’t get the depth and attention they deserved.

Here was a thing he wanted: to help someone he was not allowed to help. Here was a thing he feared: that he would ruin his entire family because of this private desire.

Oh, and the prose is beautiful. I really loved how each person was introduced with one thing they want and one thing they fear, like a leitmotif that repeated for the whole first half of the book. Structure is one thing I often complain about, but here I can find no faults. Yes, it’s slow and meandering, but thematically, it comes together. It makes sense.

I’m unlikely to read any of her series because the concepts don’t sound up my alley at all. But I’m definitely keeping an eye on potential future releases and I recommend this book to absolutely everyone who likes slow stories.

Enjoyment: 4.5/5
Execution: 5/5

Recommended to: fellow prose nerds, fans of magical realism and introspective stories, those looking for books that deal with mental health issues
Not recommended to: impatient readers and fans of action-y books, content warning: discussion of suicide

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