Thanks to partner NetGalley for the digital ARC of Daniel José Older’s The Book of Lost Saints in exchange for an honest review. The book releases Tuesday, November 5.
Daniel José Older’s The Book of Lost Saints is a strange, brilliant, gorgeous novel filled with magic and ghosts and love. I love it so, so much and recommend that you pre-order it quickly!
The book’s narrator is Marisol. A ghost. She is one of three Cuban sisters, two of whom were lost during the Cuban Revolution. Marisol, the youngest, has returned in spirit form to seek vengeance and to discover the truth of her disappearance before her spirit also disappears. She haunts her nephew, Ramón, son of Nilda, planting her memories in his dreams in hopes both of being remembered and of spurring him on to investigate the truth of what happened to her.
Older’s novel is gritty and real, and Marisol is the perfect narrator for such a book. She doesn’t shy away from sex or nudity or violence. Instead, she embraces all that is life, hungry for vitality and eager to anchor herself to the world in all its beauty and ugliness. She is also inherently curious, eager to take in everything about the people around her, about the home she lost, about the world as it is now.
As we—alongside Ramón—learn Marisol’s story, we begin to see the shape of her life. She and her eldest sister Isabel are drawn in to the Revolution and to the repercussions of the new regime. Ramón, born in the United States, has never been to Cuba but nevertheless deals with the fallout that has followed his community even as they tried to leave war behind.
This is a rich, rich story, full of romance and love, violence and revolution, loyalty and spite. There are friendships and betrayals, old ties and new alliances. It’s a master work of discovery as we watch Marisol learn the truth of her own life and Ramón understand the history that haunts his family and, therefore, himself. Daniel José Older’s beautiful writing, brilliant imagination, and keen sense of history have produced a brilliant novel in The Book of Lost Saints.
The book opens after Nikolai’s abdication, when the family has been moved to Tobolsk, Siberia. Anastasia, the 16-year-old narrator, is known as Shvibzik, or imp, and her nickname reveals a great deal about her character. Nastya is a strong-willed and mischievous trickster who enjoys entertaining her family to maintain a sense of normality and playing pranks on the soldiers who are their captors. Brandes does a brilliant job establishing the strong bonds within this family, which includes Nastya’s parents, her three sisters, and her 13-year-old brother Alexei, who suffers from hemophilia. Nastya’s father, Nikolai, acts with a humility surprising for his prior role, and he urges Nastya to honor life, to find forgiveness, and to prioritize the Russian people. Alexei was also a strong character for me, dealing with the pain of his hemophilia and the loss of his destiny as tsar with bravery and grit.
The world building is just great, and Brandes’s vision of magic centers on spell ink, a rare substance that allows spell masters and their apprentices (like Nastya) to “write” their spells as a way of enacting them. This grounding of magic works well both to expand the story of the Romanovs and to anchor it in practical concerns that occupy much of Nastya’s thoughts.
Brandes telegraphs clearly a romance with a Bolshevik soldier who serves as one of the family’s guards; it took me a while to warm to the authenticity of the match, but eventually (no spoilers here!) I appreciated the complexity of its development. Successful for me, from the beginning, is Nastya’s character arc. Watching her struggle, with her family, to acclimate herself to her new living situation, to accept that her family does not have control over their own destiny, is quite moving. Her constant attempts to be worthy of her former title and of her father’s care enhance this already-nuanced character.
The novel’s basis in history allows those familiar with the legend to appreciate the character development and the addition of magic and those unfamiliar with the stories to feel firmly grounded in what happened. (An excellent Author’s Note is also helpful!) While I don’t want to give anything away, I think that the way Brandes played with the mythology surrounding Anastasia is incredibly smart. This strong YA novel bridging history and fantasy is a great addition to the collection of works studying the royal family. Look for Nadine Brandes’s Romanov on May 7!
“It was still hard for a Korean to become a Japanese citizen, and there were many who considered such a thing shameful—for a Korean to try to become a citizen of its former oppressor. When she told her friends in New York about this curious historical anomaly and the pervasive ethnic bias, they were incredulous at the thought that the friendly, well-mannered Japanese they knew could ever think she was somehow criminal, lazy, filthy, or aggressive—the negative stereotypical traits of Koreans in Japan.”
Upon beginning this novel, I was immediately swept away by the tender, compelling story of the young Sunja, child of Hoonie and Yangjin, and their family's challenges as they worked to make their living by running a boarding house for people in the small village where they lived in Korea. When Sunja found herself in a position of dishonor and shame, I was moved by her resolution and her courage. As she makes the move to Japan, the story shifts into an exploration of Korean life in Japan. The epic novel moves through generations of Koreans in Japan, and Lee highlights the systemic oppression faced by Koreans in Japan, moving from the early 1900s all the way to present day.
I loved the way the novel showed the complexities of identity and the weight of family. I also found the treatment of Koreans in Japan both appalling and a bit surprising -- I found that it was something about which I knew very little. I loved the way that Lee showed the various reactions and feelings toward the Japanese and life in Japan.
I'm kind of thankful that I didn't realize how long the book was or how many generations would be covered -- I might have felt a little intimidated, or I might have put it off for another time. Instead, I knew nothing about it other than what I know about current day pachinko parlors in Japan, and I found myself wrapped up in the complex story of this family and their struggles to understand their identity (both as individuals and as a collective group). It was a phenomenal read.
By tracking the pathways of so many individuals, this novel spans the scope of human experience, and Lee explores the common threads within that experience. “He was suffering, and in a way, he could manage that; but he had caused others to suffer, and he did not know why he had to live now and recall the series of terrible choices that had not looked so terrible at the time. Was that how it was for most people?” Although this thought came from a more minor character, it incapsulates the scope of this powerful narrative and its examination of human experience. Such a profound novel.
This was definitely one of the best reads of 2019 so far for me, and one of the most impactful books I've read in a long time.
A Note from Ashley, Jen, and Sara
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