Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Microreview [book]: All the Crooked Saints, by Maggie Stiefvater

All the Crooked Saints breaks from European folklore for a unique desert fabulism. 

A note: Some readers might classify this novel as magical realism. When it comes to North American writers, prefer to use the term fabulism, even if it may not fully encompass the text.  

Maggie Stiefvater’s All the Crooked Saints breaks from her usual fairytale folklore style as seen in her bestselling werewolf series Shiver and her acclaimed Raven Boys Cycle about ghosts, magic, ley lines, and more. When I picked up All the Crooked Saints with the excellent cover featuring roses and owls, I expected more of the same.

Instead, this novel opens on Colorado in 1962, describing the conflation of miracles and radio waves. Immediately, this novel felt separate from Stiefvater’s teen folklore oeuvre. Set in the high deserts of Colorado, the novel opens on a family of miracle workers, the Sorias. Three of the youngest are trying to establish a radio station out of a broken-down truck, but while they might be a family of miracle workers, the miracles are reserved for the pilgrims that visit the Sorias, not the Sorias themselves. 

The Sorias are used to pilgrims seeking them out for miracles and their home has become something of a compound to house the pilgrims until the miracles are completed. Pete is not looking for a miracle but by destiny or happenstance, Pete hitches a ride to the Sorias with Tony, a radio host who is desperately in want of a miracle. Pete is distantly related to the Sorias and has agreed to work on the compound in exchange for the box truck. But he’s entered a world of strange miracles, so nothing can be so simple. 

As Stiefvater often does in her books, she redefines what magic is. In the world of All the Crooked Saints, a miracle is as much about darkness as it is about light. Take Padre Jiminez (one of my favorite miracles-in-progress): “He was as benevolent and friendly and holy as you’d hope for a priest to be, so long as your skirt didn’t blow up in the wind. The first miracle had left him with the head of a coyote but the hands of a man…. He did try to vanquish the darkness, but he could not stop his coyote’s ears from pricking when a pretty girl came to Bicho Raro.” In Stiefvater’s take on miracles, they come in two parts. First, the pilgrim’s darkness is made manifest, such as a padre with the head of a coyote, and then it is up to the pilgrim to vanquish that manifestation, which completes the miracle, leaving the seeker lighthearted.  

The opening third of the book sets up the world-building around these miracles and kept me turning pages because it felt true. One reason I’m drawn to speculative fiction is due to the moment when something difficult to comprehend in reality is expressed so perfectly through a moment of magic. Each reader will bring something different to this expression of the miraculous, and Stiefvater explores the possibilities of the manifestations through various pilgrims living among the Sorias, so that the darkness becomes multi-faceted, not just depression or secrets or hurt.

After the fashion of fabulism, Stiefvater’s prose takes on a richness that separates Crooked Saints from her other work. While she has always been high on my list of YA authors due to the excellence of her writing, this novel offers delightful prose in every sentence. I found myself reading slowly in order to enjoy the voice, the surprising twisting of phrases, the turns of imagery. This YA novel is not a page turner, but the strength of the prose and the uniqueness of the story holds up to the slow pacing. Unfortunately, that’s where the novel also seemed weakest. Sometimes, the prose seemed more important than story or characters. Similarly, so many interesting and unique characters are introduced that it’s hard to track all of them as the novel progresses.  

To that end, at times, All the Crooked Saints doesn’t feel like a YA novel. As the genre of young adult literature continues to grow, I like to imagine the lines will continue to blur. Stiefvater’s novel hovers in that in-between area—is it a young adult novel or a novel with young adult characters? And honestly, we know that mostly comes down to shelving, where the novel will sell, but when writing about genre books, I can’t help but ponder how it all fits together. One positive to Stiefvater’s blurring of genre is that it allows more easily for her omniscient narrator and the examination of the adult characters. Adult character front and center in YA is a trend I hope to see more of and missed when I was a teenager scanning the shelves. How can a novel aimed at young adults be complete without featuring to some extent the people who shape every teenager’s life? Stiefvater deepens the adults by giving them their own struggles, such as the failing marriage of Beatriz’s mother Antonia, and her father Francisco. Through omniscient narration, the reader learns that Antonia wants to suck honey off the finger of a man while Francisco wants to breed black roses. The humanization of the adult secondary characters, including a flashback chapter that describes their love, added a deeper level to this fabulist novel.  

At heart, All the Crooked Saints is a novel about light and darkness, hope and despair, the future and the past. Maggie Stiefvater weaves a tale that leaves behind European folklore many know her for and explores a fabulism that feels new for Stiefvater and cracks open the YA genre from one of the community leaders.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for lines like “You can hear a miracle a long way after dark”, +1 for young adults and adults sharing page time and character development.

Penalties: -1 for artistry sometimes taking over the story. 

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 “Well worth your time and attention.” Read more about our scoring system here.

Posted by Phoebe Wagner

Stiefvater, Maggie. All the Crooked Saints [Scholastic Press, 2017]

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