I find, as I get older, that there are fewer books that keep me reading past my bedtime. So it’s always a great treat when that happens, as it did most recently with Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls, by Kaela Rivera (middle grade, April 13th 2021, HarperCollins Children’s Books).
Cece’s home town of Tierra del Sol isn’t very big–most people don’t want to live on the edge of the desert that is home to deadly criaturas. When her big sister, the fierce and fiery Juana, is stolen away by el Sombreron, one of the most feared of the dark criaturas, Cece blames herself (with some reason). So she becomes determined to get her sister back from the stronghold of the dark beings out in the desert.
The only way she can think of to do this is to become a bruja, one of the witches who have animal criaturas (beings who shapeshift between human-like and animal form) under their control, and then win the competition in which they pit their enslaved captives against each other. This would win her the chance to enter the strong hold of the dark beings like el Sombreron. It’s a daunting proposition, as she doesn’t have a criatura, or the heartlessness required to control one and make it battle to the death. Fortunately, she has a compassionate heart. And this is enough for the Coyote criatura to agree to help her.
Things snowball, and Cece is in way over her head, appalled by what the brujas are doing, and desperate to save her sister. How can she, a girl with with no fire in her blood, like Juana, succeed?
It’s an excellent story, with lots of adventure (kids who love reading about fantastical competitions will love the fights between the criaturas) The dangers are real, and have a more complicated backstory than Cece had realized. Those who like rich world building will find it entrancing to watch her understanding of the history of her world broadening. There’s lots of heart here as well. Cece’s innate goodness is what lets her succeed, and her found family of not just Coyote but other criaturas as well is utterly charming. That being said, she’s not at all sappily good; she’s scared, determined, and fiercely using every big of agency at her control. She’s also dealing with tension within her family; her father’s grief and worry has manifested as abuse toward her, the less valued daughter.
The criaturas are drawn from Mexican-American stories, and the sort of reader who loves Rick Riordan-esque books with their wealth of mythological background should be very taken with the mythology of Cece’s world! I certainly was, and I will most definitely be looking out for more by Kaela Rivera (a sequel, for instance, would be nice–although Cece’s story stands alone, I’d like to spend more time with her and her criatura friends!
(Here’s my one small niggling doubt that was not germane to my reading enjoyment, but which I was bothered by–what with all the battling to the death, the brujas seem to be burning through the criaturas pretty fast, and this morally reprehensible practice doesn’t seem to be isn’t sustainable. Unless of course more are somehow being generated….)