All the Crooked Saints // by Maggie Stiefvater

//published 2017//

Sometimes you happen upon perfect books by accident.  You pick it up at random and read it and when you finish it, you’ve changed somehow, deep inside – and you had no idea it was going to happen.  The Scent of Water was a book like that for me, a surprise bit of magic that has become one of my all-time favorite books.

Other times, you pick up a book and hope that it’s magic.  You’ve heard good things about it, you yearn for it to be a perfect book that makes you sigh in contentment as you close the back cover.  Those are the dangerous books, the books with expectations attached to them.  Those are the ones that can leave you feel disproportionately disappointed.  I felt that way about The Dire King.  It wasn’t a bad book on it’s own, but I had expectations going into it, and they weren’t met, and I ended up feeling somewhat dissatisfied, when if I had come to it cold, I think I would have found it to be a perfectly good read.

All the Crooked Saints was a book I came to with expectations.  Nothing specific – just a general yearning for this book to be magical.  And friends, I am here to tell you that this book did not leave me disappointed.

However, I’m not sure if that magic will translate well into a book review.  I’ll do my best, but at the end of the day, you’ll just have to read it yourself.  And I’ve read a lot of reviews by people who didn’t find this book remotely magical, which only emphasizes the fact that everyone reads a different book (even when it’s the same book).  Anyway.

This book centers on a place almost more than on a person.  That place is Bicho Raro in southwest Colorado.  Stiefvater’s writing took me to that high desert perfectly.  She always does an excellent job setting up a feeling of place, a feeling that this particularly story could happen no where else.  The family that lives at Bicho Raro are the Sorias.  It’s bit of a tangle of family, with three cousins close in age at the center of what is happening.  But the events that coalesce around Beatriz, Daniel, and Joaquin impact their entire family, and so this book is, in some ways, about them all.

The line between reality and magic is quite blurred in this book.  Frequently, it’s impossible to tell whether Stiefvater is being literal or is using hyperbole (“he had been alive longer than both his parents”) because the presence of magic means that what is impossible in our world is possible in the world of Bicho Raro.  There, miracles happen.

It’s rare that I am not bothered when religion and magic are mixed.  It’s a special kind of magic that grows from religion rather than denies it.  This magic, however, is captured perfectly here.  Miracles and magic intermingle freely in a way that seems completely natural.

He had performed the common mistake that many do when confronted with the idea of the miraculous:  He had assumed it meant magical.  Miracles often look like magic, but a proper miracle is also awesome, sometimes fearful, and always vaguely difficult to truly wrap your mortal head around.

But what is the story about?! you ask.  It’s hard to say, but I will try.  Bicho Raro is a place where you can go for a miracle, but the miracle may not look as you hoped.  The Sorias have the ability to take the darkness inside of you and turn it into something tangible, physical.  In turn, this allows you, the pilgrim, to fight your darkness in a very real way.

The problem is that our darkness is not always the shape that we anticipate, and sometimes when we are confronted with it, we realize that we would rather not be rid of it at all.

Almost no one would think it’s correct to answer this question [whether your would like to be rid of your darkness] with a no, but the truth is that we men and women often hate to be rid of the familiar, and sometimes our darkness is the thing we know the best.

This isn’t a heart-pounding adventure of a story.  Instead, it unwinds like a folktale, with that rhythm and repetition of phrases. Incidentally, I read more than one review that found that repetition quite aggravating, but to me it made this story almost musical in its pattern.

I’m struggling with how much to reveal about the story of this one, and I’m concluding that the answer is “not much.”  Suffice to say, I loved it.

One thing I noticed when I was flipping through reviews of this book is that there were complaints about Stiefvater “appropriating” Hispanic culture.  I’m a bit confused, because it appears that she is both in trouble for not writing enough not-white characters (Raven Cycle) and for writing about not-white characters in Saints.  I think the answer is that unreasonable people will be determined to be unreasonable.  Regular people, who read for the joy of a story, are able to empathize with relateable characters, no matter the skin tone or cultural background of said characters.  And the gift of a true storyteller is the ability to see, understand, and give back stories, even if those stories don’t match the storyteller’s personal background.  If people only wrote about their own exact life experiences, stories would be rather boring.

Anyway, at the of the day All the Crooked Saints was a 5* read for me, and one of my favorite books that I’ve read this year, despite my inability to really express why.  While I recognize that it isn’t for everyone, I found the magic in this book to be almost tangible.  It’s a story of hope, courage, and family, and I’m already excited to reread it.