Spoiler Rating: Moderate/High-ish
Sanctum was high on my To Read list when you died, at which point I chunked it deep into the wastelands of my (internal) This Can Wait list. I’ve been strictly avoiding anything that involves (or looks likely to involve) loved ones dying, especially if those loved ones are sisters or best friends. Nope nope nope. Not ready.
Well, until a couple days ago, when I hovered a finger over Sanctum‘s cover on my Kindle app, and thought maybe I could do this.
So I opened it, and read the first line of the prologue—not even the first full sentence, just the first line!—and said something out loud like, “Of course.”
Of course this novel takes place in Rhode Island. Of course. Because reading about a best friend dying unexpectedly doesn’t hit close enough to home.
(Andrew heard me and asked what was up; he knows I’ve been struggling to prepare myself for this book, and recognized the tone of that “Of course.” So I told him what was up. “Now you really aren’t allowed to read it,” he joked.)
But I did read it, and didn’t collapse into a weepy pile even once.
Could my lack of weepiness be in part be because the raw panicky wound of losing you is finally starting to heal? Sure. But it’s more likely because the book—which promises so much, and has so many neat things to offer—was surprisingly disappointing.
“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.
Things to enjoy about this book include:
a) A heroine who’s a person of color!
b) A love interest who’s a person of color!
c) A bad ass warrior who’s a woman of color!
d) Those three above-listed characters—the most significant and active characters in the book—are both strong and damaged in serious ways!
e) A genuinely gross and creepy purgatoryish world!
f) Honest portrayals of depression, and the struggle to discover one’s self-worth!
g) It’s a story about love and self-sacrifice in the face of danger!
h) It’s a story about the friendship of two girls, and how their love for each other has (and will) affect their lives (and deaths)!
See? A lot of great stuff going on here.
The Totally Fine Stuff
The writing style was fine—not as imaginative or expressive as I would’ve liked, but fine.
The plot was fine—nothing that kept me enthralled, but fine.
The antagonists were fine—not as scary as they were perhaps intended to be, but fine.
The conclusion was fine—not as deeply moving or surprising as I was hoping, but fine.
Maybe I just wasn’t really in the mood for this book; maybe I was feeling generally apathetic while reading it. There certainly wasn’t anything glaringly wrong with the writing style, the plot, the antagonists, or the conclusion. It was all competently written. But I can’t muster up the enthusiasm to say more than It was fine.
The Problematic Stuff
While Lela didn’t fall all over herself at the first sight of Sexy Dude Malachi, Malachi pretty much dropped everything at the first sight of her. Which, uh, isn’t good, because he has things to do.
He may look like your average super-muscled high school student (that’s almost a direct quote, FYI), but he’s the captain of the Guards, with apparently countless inhuman men (and one human woman, Ana) under his command. He oversees the important duties of patrolling the massive-and-ever-growing city, aiding the occasional citizen, and combating the growing horde of Mazikin.
(Mazikin: spirit things that escape their own super-hellish realm by possessing the bodies of the human citizens of Malachi’s city, thereby banishing those human souls to the super-hellish Mazikin realm.)
If there is one person in this novel who shouldn’t drop everything the moment they see someone attractive, it’s Malachi. And yet.
Within hours of meeting her he’s tossing himself into near-fatal encounters, he’s forsaking his duties, he’s creating uncertainty and distrust among his troops. Why? Because Lela’s a strong, self-sacrificing girl—which makes her intriguing—and she looks so smoochable.
Overall, the romance felt rushed and melodramatic, and I never really bought it.
Trigger warning: discussion of how the after-effects of rape are handled in this book below.
Just scroll on down to point number three if you don’t want to read this.
So Lela’s been chunked from one terrible, abusive, neglectful foster home to another, landing eventually in the home of a man who repeatedly beat and raped her. Lela committed suicide to escape him, but he revived her and continued his abuse of her until she (eventually) tries to kill him, which lands her in juvie.
She’s later taken in by a kind and supportive foster mom, but Lela’s horrible life (especially at the hands of that man) have left her seriously scarred. The memories haunt her, and frequently threaten to overwhelm her. She has trouble trusting people, and refuses to let anyone—even her best friend—touch her. She’s never so much as touched a boy (except to beat them up, if they’re threatening her).
Her trauma is portrayed fairly well in the book, with two glaring exceptions.
Exception Number One: Trying To Seduce Malachi
Shortly upon arriving in the city, she’s captured by the Guards and beaten almost to death. When she wakes up (miraculously healed), she’s naked in a small room, lying on a cot, covered in just a sheet. A strange man (Malachi) is in the room with her. She’s locked in. He’s there to interrogate her. She’s seen this man kill before, and knows he can kill her.
Oh, and he’s checking her out. Awesome. What a stand-up guy!
So when it’s clear that Malachi won’t let her just stroll out into the city unaccompanied to find her lost friend, she decides to do something extreme:
What does she consider “sneaky,” “pathetic,” and “manipulative”? Seducing him and stealing the key she knows must be on his body somewhere.
Here’s my initial problem: she nearly blacks out from fear when she remembers what her foster father did to her. How does she think she can convince this man she wants to have sex with him with no ulterior motive? There’s no way she’ll be able to convince him that she isn’t doing this just to try to escape.
Here’s my second problem: why does she condemn her own plan as sneaky, pathetic, and manipulative? Those words frame herself as the villain and Malachi as the victim. When he’s the one keeping her in a locked room against her will.
The seduction attempt is well-written; she’s terrified, and her terror is obvious. Malachi’s rejection of her is also good; he tells her he knows what she’s trying to do, and leaves the room (with her still locked in it).
What’s horrible is her reaction to his rejection.
Hold on a moment. I’m getting all red-eyed with anger over here.
Why on earth is she humiliated? Because Malachi turned her down? Because she was caught using a “sneaky,” “pathetic,” and “manipulative” tactic to try to escape? Sure, it’s okay to feel stupid for not considering that Malachi didn’t have the keys on him. What’s not okay is (according to my reading of the scene) that the humiliation seems to be tied to both Lela’s inability to turn a guy on (“Oh my god, I’m not sexy enough”) and the fact that she tried to use sex as a weapon (“Oh my god, I’m so shamefully impure”).
But Lela had run out of options; the thought of using sex as a way to get out utterly terrified her, but she was so desperate that she used it anyway. Lela’s humiliation in this situation is such a clear response to our society’s idea of a proper woman (must always be attractive to all men all the time, must not have agency over her own body or sexuality) that I nearly cried. Anger-tears, obviously.
I’m 100% okay with Lela experiencing these thoughts and emotions, because yeah, they are (unfortunately) a realistic outcome of our society’s views on women and sex. What I have trouble swallowing is heroines of young adult romance-y novels experiencing these thoughts and emotions without it somehow getting through to the reader that Hey, this is the result of misogyny, and girls shouldn’t think this way about themselves. I’m horrified to imagine that young women will read books like this (or, for a more extreme example, Twilight) and accept the heroines’ ideas about themselves/women/sex as the gospel truth.
Why is she “shamefully relieved” that Malachi didn’t take her up on her offer? Why can’t she just be “relieved”? There’s no shame in a rape victim being relieved that she doesn’t have to seduce her captor in order to escape him. To be “shamefully relieved” means to feel relief when you or your society believes that you should be feeling the opposite; in this case, apparently, Lela is supposed to be disappointed that Malachi turns her down. (That sound you’re hearing right now is my keyboard splintering under the force of my angry-typing.)
The fact that Lela feels shame is (to me) another outcome of our society’s view of women and sex: once a woman (willingly or not) makes herself sexually available to a man, she can’t withdraw that availability. (If she does, she’ll likely face some degree of repercussion—such as being called a tease, or socially labeled a fickle, cold, manipulative bitch. The man’s desire for sex trumps the woman’s lack of desire, and the woman is in the wrong for not recognizing/submitting to that “fact.”)
Lela has clearly internalized this belief, and is consequently ashamed at her own relief that she won’t have to have sex with this guy after all. Again, I’m fine with this, because it’s (unfortunately) a realistic response for a girl in our society to have. But I really, really don’t want readers to internalize this belief themselves because it pops up uncontested in both the society they live in and the books they read. I wish this book had somehow indicated that this way of thinking isn’t okay.
c) Sex Kitten
Setting aside my feminism, let’s look at the last sentence in this chapter: “Thus ended my initial foray as a sex kitten.” That’s it. “Thus ended my initial foray as a sex kitten.”
Are you kidding me? This one jokey sentence reduces the scene from “rape victim forced to use sex as a tool to escape her captor” to “girl’s sexual advances embarrassingly rejected by guy.” Totally cripples the scene’s significance to Lela and the emotional impact to the reader.
You know what? I’m not even going to go into my second example.
For the most part, Lela instinctively flinches away from being touched, she panics (even to the point of having flashbacks and blacking out) when she’s grabbed from behind, she goes cold when men look at her as a sexually available body. All very realistic responses. But during a couple scenes, the trauma of her rape is conveniently forgotten for the sake of (a) making Sexy Awkwardness between Lela and Malachi, and (b) making a joke—thereby undermining Lela’s character development, and downplaying the very real trauma that victims experience.
And I repeat: aaaaargh.
I’m talking about consent to touch and be touched in romantic but not-explicitly-sexual ways now. This might warrant a trigger warning for abuse, in which case you should skip down to the concluding section of this letter.
As a rule, Lela doesn’t let people touch her. But then Malachi starts looking pretty attractive, and Lela wonders what would it be like to, say, hold his hand?
They do have some excellent conversations about consenting to be touched by each other, which are awesome and I’m 100% in favor of—but then Lela forces non-consensual touching on him anyway.
I’ll just use one example again, for the sake of time and my blood pressure.
Lela is about to go put herself in extreme danger, and Malachi responds by pulling away from her emotionally, hoping to protect himself from the pain of (what he views as) her almost certainly imminent death. Naturally, she’s scared of what’s to come, herself.
He explains in clear terms that he isn’t emotionally or mentally prepared to lose her, and that he wants to stop all the cuddling as a self-defense measure.
That’s right. He begs her not to touch him, and she’s all, “Oh, but it’ll help me to touch you,” and she touches him. Over the next couple pages he keeps begging her to stop, and she keeps touching. When she leaves a few minutes later, she glances back at him:
Yeah, looks like that encounter went well.
She later reflects on her actions and realizes she probably did something she shouldn’t have. Hurray! And then. And then they discuss it (and by “it” I mean the fact that her forced cuddling got his scent on her clothes, which their sensitive-nosed enemies noticed). Malachi apologizes for, I don’t know, having a scent to even get on her clothes, and Lela brushes off his apology.
That’s right. He begged Don’t touch me, she touched him anyway, she realized belatedly that maybe that was a jerk move—and then ultimately decides she’s not sorry about it, because touching him is so awesome.
Lizzy, I could use one of your wrath-soothing hugs right now.
It perhaps doesn’t help this book’s rating that I read it so soon after reading An Ember in the Ashes, which does a hugely better job of showing a girl infiltrating a terrifying place in order to save a loved one. I might’ve rated Sanctum a half-star higher without An Ember in the Ashes lingering behind my eyelids like a delicious, wonderful nightmare. In terms of power and realism, Sanctum just can’t compare.
But that’s okay. Sanctum isn’t a bad book. It definitely has great things going for it, and it faces the worthy issues of abuse and depression and self-worth. It’s easy to see why so many people love it.
And I may not be one of those people, but I will be picking up the sequel at some point.