I just finished reading Francisco X. Stork’s latest, THE LAST SUMMER OF THE DEATH WARRIORS, and I think I’m going to have a hard time reviewing it. I know why I liked it so well, and it’s the same reason why I liked his last novel (MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD). I’m just not certain it’s the most convincing-sounding reason for me to love a novel. It makes for a review consisting of mostly emotion and precious little fact. But I think I’m going to say it anyway.
Basically, it’s this: both of Stork’s novels leave me feeling convinced of the human race’s decency.
I could tell you what DEATH WARRIORS was about, but it’s one of those books that isn’t really about its plot summary (sulky boy intent on avenging his sister’s death meets a boy with cancer who changes his life). At best, it sounds maudlin. At worst, it sounds bleedingly depressing. The actual novel is neither of those things. Instead, it’s a novel about anger and identity -- the identity others give us, the identities we wear, and our actual identities that we might never find. It’s also about big abstract words like love and faith and grief. All things that are very unhelpful to throw around in a review, but Stork’s books seem to encourage that sort of thinking. It’s hard to feel unchanged after you close the cover.
Which is another reason why I love his books. They make you bigger inside after reading them. These people, these teens from all walks of life (and even without reading Stork’s bio, I believe in them) -- they feel real. Every bit of kindness in this novel is fought for, every spiritual (and I mean spiritual in the very broadest sense) milestone is bled for (sometimes literally), and for every moment where you sigh with the perfection of it, there are ten where you wince at the awkwardness and the painfulness and the realness of it.
As with all novels, I had some issues with it, but they didn’t end up being enough to take away from my ultimate cheerfulness about this book. The big one seems silly: I missed dialog tags. There were a lot of conversations where the speakers were not delineated and I got lost several times. Also, Pancho, the prickly narrator, takes some getting used to, but that’s the point. Neither were enough of a speed bump to stop me, however.
It took me a year to read this book, even after I’d gotten an advanced review copy and also bought myself a hardcover while recalling the warm-fuzzy of reading MARCELO. I just was so afraid to read his next offering, thinking that the same, nameless magic that caught me in MARCELO couldn’t possibly be duplicated. But DEATH WARRIORS captures that same sense: that genuine kindness that you wish was real. It’s an incredibly spiritual book, a spirituality that defies labels. Highly recommended.
(as always, you can see my five-star reads on Goodreads).