Sanctum by Sarah FineSanctum by Sarah Fine
Series: Guards of the Shadowlands #1
Published by Marshall Cavendish Children's on October 16th 2012
Genres: Young Adult, Urban Fantasy
Pages: 417

“My plan: Get into the city. Get Nadia. Find a way out. Simple.”

A week ago, seventeen-year-old Lela Santos’s best friend, Nadia, killed herself. Today, thanks to a farewell ritual gone awry, Lela is standing in paradise, looking upon a vast gated city in the distance—hell. No one willingly walks through the Suicide Gates, into a place smothered in darkness and infested with depraved creatures. But Lela isn’t just anyone—she’s determined to save her best friend’s soul, even if it means sacrificing her eternal afterlife.

As Lela struggles to find Nadia, she’s captured by the Guards, enormous, not-quite-human creatures that patrol the dark city’s endless streets. Their all-too-human leader, Malachi, is unlike them in every way except one: his deadly efficiency. When he meets Lela, Malachi forms his own plan: get her out of the city, even if it means she must leave Nadia behind. Malachi knows something Lela doesn’t—the dark city isn’t the worst place Lela could end up, and he will stop at nothing to keep her from that fate.

4 Stars

“She looked at me as if she saw something else inside of me—something wonderful, something worth knowing—and she was the only person who could make it come out. She taught me things. She gave me things. Amazing things. A vision of myself, different from what I had been. Better, but still me, you know?”

Lela and Nadia have an almost symbiotic friendship, a relationship which is shattered when Nadia commits suicide. Nadia now restlessly roams the dark city of suicidals, a place for the dead who are not ready to move on to a “better place”. Lela is so desperately grateful to Nadia, a friend who has brought her back to a normal life in the aftermath of several traumas, that she will do anything to get Nadia out of her “afterlife misery”. Due to a near-suicide, Lela has been catching glimpses of the gates to the dark city for years through her frequent nightmares, which is how she knows Nadia is in trouble, and she needs to get her out at any cost.

Lela is a great heroine to root for. She has suffered from severe trauma, she’s found an unlikely friend, and she’s loyal to her to no end. However, she’s also flawed. She often thinks she’s the solution the the problem, not because she’s arrogant but because she wants to help so desperately. She’s also badass at self-defense. Having needed to defend herself her whole life, Lela is good at disarming opponents and fighting back to the very end, which comes in handy when you walk straight through the gates of hell.

For me, Sanctum evolves around three core themes.

1. Mental illness
If you do not like books covering mental illness or other psychological issues, then you should shy away from this book. It may look like your average Urban Fantasy (truthfully, I have no idea what genre to place this in – feel free to correct me) but the topics are quite serious and dark. Nadia suffers from depression, even in her afterlife, and I appreciate that this happened to a person who was supposed to be the queen of the local high school. It just goes to show how what’s on the outside does not necessarily represent what’s happening on the inside. Lela herself has been sexually abused (so yes, rape is also a topic that is broached) and her trauma is still apparent in her behaviour, certain situations putting causing her a lot of distress.

2. Redemption
If you die, a beautiful countryside awaits you. If you commit suicide, a pale city with nasty creatures and other lost souls is where you end up. At first, this made me angry because I thought Fine was portraying the suicide-is-a-sin angle. But she was not. The reason these people end up in the city is because they are not ready to move on. They have unfinished business, and they are not at peace with themselves. I started to appreciate this approach to suicide and afterlife: death not being the solution to mental illness or sticky situations, because the spiral these people are in just continues after death. It’s about redemption, about coming to terms with whatever is haunting them, before these souls, too, can move on in peace.

3. Romance
Classic YA as it is, romance makes up a considerable part of the plot. Malachi is captain of the Guard that patrols the dark city and has been through his own ordeal, which is where Sarah Fine brings a part of dark European history into the plot. He’s intelligent, he’s deadly but also surprisingly compassionate. (Plus, let’s face it, he’s hot). The relationship between Lela and Malachi starts with a spark of curiosity and then transforms into something raw, fierce, and intense. And also impossible since they’re in hell, a world where Lela does not belong.

The writing was serviceable but I tend to look for more  artistic prose in books these days. I feel like I would’ve loved this book more had I read it a few years earlier, because at times, the setting felt a bit juvenile – this is the same issue I had with Angelfall. However, there’s nothing specific I could point out to you that could be changed regarding this complaint. It’s just that feeling you get when reading a book, something to do with the general atmosphere.

Speaking more specifically about what did not connect with me: The introduction to Lela’s and Nadia’s friendship was too speedy. I love when authors cut right to the chase, but I barely had time to grasp all the strings before things literally went straight to hell, so I did not feel that much investment during Lela’s search for her best friend.

Overall, Sanctum is a clever combination of a dark Urban Fantasy world, mental health issues, an indestructible friendship, and a sizzling romance.. This was some highly addictive stuff. Therefore, two thumbs up from the God of the Underworld.

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