Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork



It surrounds Pancho. His father, in an accident. His sister, murdered. His own plans to trace the killer. And D.Q. – a guy Pancho’s age who is dying of cancer. That is, if he’ll ever shut up.


D.Q. is writing “The Death Warrior’s Manifesto,” a guide to living out his last days fully. He needs just one more thing: the love of the beautiful Marisol. But as Pancho tracks down his sister’s murderer, he finds himself falling for Marisol as well . . .


And choices that seem right and straightforward become tender, tentative, real. While D.Q. faces his own crisis of doubt, Pancho is inexorably drawn to a decision to revenge his sister and her death, or to embrace the way of the Death Warrior and choose life.

I have such fantastically positive feelings towards this unexpected treasure that came my way, I am still bouncing up and down about it.

Our main character Pancho is bent on revenge. He is determined to find the killer responsible for the death of his sister. He's frustrated in his quest by the fact that a) no one is taking him seriously and b) he's been sent to live at St Anthony's (an orphanage) where he has to live until he is old enough to make her own way in the world.

The fact that he implicitly believes that his sister was murdered is such an all consuming thought for Pancho that nothing else matters. He knows he'll kill the person responsible, once he finds him. He practically knows his life is over and he's fatalistic about it and almost comes to see himself as untouchable, a dead man walking.

Pancho's strength of character in this novel is amazing. I genuinely rolled my eyes when I read the write-up about this thinking, oh wow, this is going to be a dull one dimensional character blah blah. And boy, I couldn't have been more wrong. Pancho, we discover is this truly complex, wonderfully sullen but smart kid. He's not stupid, but because he is tall and athletic he knows he looks the part of the dumb kid who is going straight to jail, someone who drinks and smokes and who is on the cusp of joining some kind of Latino gang, yet, he's anything but. I loved this contradictory character so much. Especially when he's faced with his nemesis: DQ.

DQ is a fellow boarder at St Anthony's. DQ is actually there by choice, unlike most of the other boys. DQ's mum left him there, as she went off to find herself, after a disastrous nervous breakdown. DQ, it turns out is super intelligent and deeply funny. He is also dying. And the very moment Pancho turns up at St Anthony's, DQ knows that Pancho is going to be his guy, the one who will be sticking with him and helping him prepare for the inevitable.

The author writes these two characters so well. There is an honesty here that had me gulping back tears. Emotions are raw, and the real-life situations they find themselves in are heartstoppingly achingly real and in some instances, cringeworthy.

We follow Pancho as he slowly but surely pieces together the story behind his sister's death. As we witness the variety of emotions he goes through, peppered with his thoughts about his future, what could be, what it will be and coupled with DQ's growing reliance on Pancho as a helper, Pancho's character genuinely runs the gamut of emotions.

I can't think of anything more awful, for someone to know the inevitable outcome of their life-story and yet feeling that they have to continue on that route, because what else is out there for them?

This is true for both Pancho and DQ. DQ's character is the easiest one to identify with and have empathy for. His illness is awful and debilitating and although very few of us can imagine what it must be like, we can put ourselves in a situation like that because we've all at one time been ill enough to think "oh my god, I'm dying." Contrasted with the vigilante in the making Pancho, I think very few of us ever felt strongly motivated enough to want to kill someone to the point where you don't care what's going to happen to yourself after the fact, and that is where Pancho's character holds us off for a while.

Our two characters are wise and funny throughout. Pancho doesn't like talking and he doesn't like focussing on thinking, but being around DQ he can't help but stop and think. And he doesn't necessarily like it. Their banter is very funny and deeply moving. As their friendship grows and DQ's illness becomes worse due to treatment, Pancho is there to help out. Stoic and a bit annoyed by it all, but he does it and is probably initially not sure why he's doing it.

When DQ's mum turns up, insisting that he comes back with her to live at her new home with her new husband on their beautiful new homestead, DQ rebels and acts out, demanding that Pancho come with him. Pancho is not at all keen as he thinks DQ's mum is more than just a bit nuts and he gets that she doesn't understand her son at all.

They strike a compromise and DQ and Pancho eventually move in with his mum. I winced when DQ's mum showed what she thought of Pancho by making him bunk with the farm-help. DQ stands up to her and we have the two friends bunking together. There follows some deeply surreal bits where his mum insists that DQ take part in some kind of holistic healing and things go not entirely the way she wants it to. But completely the way we, as the readers, want it to go.

Of course, I've hugely simplified this story, there is much much more to it, including a girl, a knife fight, gangster confrontations and boxing oh, and rickshaw rides. Trust me. It works.

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is a tour de force of what writing for teens can be like when you create characters that leap off the page with a plot and sub-plot that weaves and intermingles so coherently and in a realistic fashion, that it feels like you are right there.

If you read one teen novel this year, read this.

Find Francisco X Stork's website here. The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is out from Scholastic in June later this year.


CarlyB said...

Ooh this one sounds interesting. Great review :) x

Darren @ Bart's Bookshelf said...

Sounds an incredible read, I'll have to try and get a copy!