Saturday, January 26, 2013

"Sanctum," by Sarah Fine

The Protagonist: Lela Santos. Despite a horrifically abusive upbringing, she found a friend in Nadia, a popular but troubled girl at her school. Their friendship finally convinced her that life is worth living.
Her Angst: But then Nadia kills herself, and Lela's convinced her spirit was sent to a horrible place known as the Shadowlands where suicides are punished - a place Lela's dreamed out since she attempted suicide years before. Can Lela possibly get Nadia out, or will she fail her best friend a second time?

Secondary Cast:

Malachi: The Captain of the Guard of the Shadowlands. Dedicated to ridding the dark city of the Mazikin - demons who possess the bodies of suicides. He's been at this for more than seventy years, waiting for the time when his service will earn him the place in the Countryside he was denied when he committed suicide back in the 1940s.

Ana: Another suicide who serves on the guard with Malachi. A kick-ass warrior, she helps Malachi and Lela track down Nadia while fighting off the Mazikin.

Nadia: Lela's friend - overcome with depression, she became convinced she was an unloveable fraud and killed herself to escape. Instead, she wound up in a grimy underworld to endure punishment for her act.

Raphael: A mysterious, powerful personage who helps the Guard as their healer and doctor.

Juri: An evil Mazikin who has it in for Malachi - every time Malachi kills his host body, he possesses another one to continue their battle until the bitter end.

Angst Checklist:

  • Surviving Sexual Abuse
  • Exploring love and sexual desire after surviving sexual abuse
  • Depression and mental illness
  • How people apparently deserve to be punished for depression and mental illness
  • I escaped the Holocaust and all I got for it was Indentured Servitude

The Word: First of all, I owe an apology to the author, Sarah Fine. She was kind enough to send me an ARC of this back in the summer, but when I was moving my bookshelves around, the book got lost in the shuffle. I found it this month and was mortified at how late it was. I am so sorry for the delay.

As part of my apology, I might suggest to Ms. Fine that she not read this review, because not only was I more or less unimpressed with the storytelling, the worldbuilding sent me spiralling into a pretty heavy rant that I'm pretty sure she would not want to read.

The Review

The novel starts strongly - with the fantastic heroine of Lela Santos. A tough, jaded teenager with a thoroughly calloused soul after years of abusive foster care, she manages to befriend Nadia, the Queen Bee of her latest high school. To Lela's surprise, Nadia is kind and welcoming, and the two develop a wonderful bond of friendship that finally convinces Lela that she has a future, that she's worth something, that she's worthy of love.

The two flies in her ointment: one, Lela still has recurring nightmares of the horrifying hell dimension she witnessed when she tried to kill herself as a child; and two, she can't seem to stop Nadia's inexorable slide into depression - which eventually culminates in her suicide.

Lela is devastated. Worse, now her nightmares include Nadia, lost and alone, wandering through that dark city rife with misery and riddled with mysterious predators. Somehow, Lela realizes these visions are real and that her friend didn't obtain the escape she longed for. While trying to figure out how these visions work, Lela falls off a cliff (for reals) and winds up in a heavenly Countryside where she feels warm and loved and at peace - but bordering this land is the same dark city she witnessed in her dreams. Despite the Countryside's loving embrace, she can't rest while she knows her friend is suffering in that horrible afterlife, so she sneaks past the Suicide Gates to try and rescue her friend.

Past the Suicide Gates, Lela emerges in a horrible place called the Shadowlands, where suicides live in helpless torment. The place is also patrolled by guards who keep the suicides from escaping - and also combat the strange demons known as Mazikin who have started infesting the city in ever-greater numbers. It's here that Lela runs into Malachi, a former suicide and captain of the guard. Malachi is first shocked, then fascinated that anyone would willingly give up the Countryside for someone else - after all, he has been working to earn his way out since the 1940s (as indicated by the tell-tale string of numbers tattooed on his arm). As they work together to find Nadia, they develop a passionate bond that, unfortunately, ends up slowing the pace and cluttering the storyline with purple prose as each protagonist tries to out-martyr the other to prove their love.

On top of the story losing steam and devolving into a gooey, angsty teen romance version of the "oh no, after you" "no, no, I insist, after you" joke, I had serious problems with the worldbuilding.

Now we have The Rant (and spoilers)

Now, I knew the setting would be a dark underworld reserved for suicides going in, so I swallowed my repugnance at the idea because I wanted to see what the author would do with it. After all, there is a huge mythological and religious basis for the idea that suicidal people go to a different afterlife. Who knows? Maybe the worldbuilding will be clever enough to explain it in an interesting way.

Except not. We get some basic world building, but the ultimate purpose of the Shadowlands is left in the, well, dark. It's a hellish dimension where everyone walks around in endless cycles of misery. No one helps these people. No one reaches out to them. In fact, some of them even commit suicide again, several times, only to reappear outside the Suicide Gates to start over.

The only bright spot in the entire city is the Sanctum, where the Judge resides - the omniscient being who can free people from the Dark City and send them to the Countryside. But she only does it for people who are "ready" - or **spoiler** to support her own personal agenda when she frees Nadia to gain Lela's service. So really, the whole "they need to be ready before they leave" is bull crap because she can free people whenever she wants. She just doesn't, because she's horrible and this book is horrible. *spoiler* 

The only message that sends to me is that people who commit suicide - and this includes the mentally ill (depression is brought up) - deserve to be punished. People who die "regular" deaths (like Lela, initially) go immediately to the lovely Countryside. None of them are delayed or asked to "work out their issues" before they reach their heavenly destination. Despite the fact that people who die of natural causes or accidents can have just as many issues as people who wind up taking their own lives.

Meanwhile, the world in this book deems suicides unworthy of a happy afterlife and sends them to a hellish underworld where they are expected to fix themselves (which worked SO well when they were alive) before they can be free to join their families and loved ones in the Countryside. **spoiler** Despite the fact that the Judge can send ANYONE SHE WANTS TO THE COUNTRYSIDE whether they meet her bizarre requirements or not. **spoiler**

No. Just - NO. I can't think of an uglier or less compassionate idea.

I tried to get over this revolting worldbuilding to focus on the story, but the further I got, the worse it got - especially with Malachi's backstory, in which he was told by the Judge that his horrible suffering (in Auschwitz) didn't "earn" him a "free ticket" out of the hellish dimension he apparently deserved because he was "weak" enough to consider death-by-electric-fence preferable to being shot by the Nazis.

Part of the reason for this rant is because the novel is so vague about what the purpose of the Shadowlands is. Why are suicides sent here? How is this supposed to help them? Or if this is punishment - why do they deserve to be punished? For all I know, the Judge and the City could turn out to be villains in the next book - but part of that should at least be reflected in this novel by the characters' attitudes. Lela, initially, does think the city is horrible, but she is slowly convinced by Malachi and the others that this is just the natural order of things, the way things are meant to be, and that the suicides somehow need this for some unexplained metaphysical reason.

Which, I'm sorry to say, is not enough to convince me that the world of this book is anything less than disgusting.

Sanctum has an awesomely strong, developed heroine who is more than capable of taking care of herself - but not much else. Even without the heinous "suicides need to suffer before they can get to heaven" plotline, the story is bogged down by tedious training sequences, overblown InstaLove, underdeveloped villains, and an inconsistently portrayed setting.

If you still want to read this, Sanctum is available for Kindle.


  1. Yeah, I agree: a terribly ugly idea. BTW, I haven't been reading your blog for a terribly long time, but I've found that I really love the way you review books. Thanks!

    1. Thank you so much!

      Yeah, I was really bothered by this - and it might have been a palatable idea if she'd just explained it in worldbuilding. For instance, they go into the fact that people with depression have trouble recognizing positive things in their lives, so she could have made it so that they wouldn't have even been able to appreciate the Countryside without treatment first.

      And even then - the whole idea that these suicides have to fix everything BY THEMSELVES with NO HELP in a dimension designed to be depressing and awful. I'm surprised anyone gets out!

  2. Great review, thank you. I'm with you, I find the premise of the story quite repugnant. The idea that there's a special awful place reserved solely for suicides is just wrong on every level (what about the rapists and murderers out there - don't they deserve to be in that place far more than a poor suicidal person?).

    1. The book does mention there are different (presumably worse) afterlives for criminals and rapists.

      It just bothers me - the book DOES mention depression, and that it's an illness, and that it's no one's fault. But if depression isn't anyone's fault - WHY ARE THEY PUNISHED FOR IT IN HELL?