We meet and part with Lela, SANCTUM’s protagonist, in the exact same location: the fence outside Warwick High School, where students go when they need a cigarette. However, the Lela we meet on the novel’s first page and the Lela we leave on its last seem to be almost two completely different people, and it is her personal growth that makes SANCTUM a compelling read. Even between the Prologue and Chapter One, Lela transforms from a rebellious, suicidal (not to mention homicidal) foster child/loner to a young woman with a relatively stable home life, a best friend, and a future. But it is her journey after that initial transformation that truly makes the novel a worthwhile read.
"I would have to say that the Guards of the Shadowlands series, if it capitalizes on its first novel’s promise, will be quite gripping indeed."
Prior to starting at Warwick High School, Lela served time in a juvenile detention center for an attempted murder. Prior to that, she attempted suicide and almost landed inside the Suicide Gates, a place about which Lela currently has nightmares. When her new best friend, Nadia, the girl who helped Lela turn her life around, commits suicide, Lela realizes that she needs to save Nadia from the (literally) hellish life she will lead in the city within those gates, despite knowing full well that Nadia has no desire to help herself.
Thus, Lela enters the realm that haunts her worst nightmares with the hope of saving both herself and her best friend. It is here that, strangely enough, she undergoes the most compelling phase of her transformation: from a person who believes that she has gained everything she has because of Nadia to one who recognizes her own agency and inner strength. The author, Sarah Fine, has a background in child psychology, and she does a great job of balancing Lela’s feeling of debt to Nadia and growing reliance on her love interest, Malachi, with Lela’s recognition that it is her own inner strength that is actually the driving force behind the successes in her life (and afterlife). In fact, the complexity with which Fine illustrates both Lela and Nadia’s psychological issues is to her credit. She deftly shows how both Nadia and Lela’s respective upbringings and personalities, though vastly different, have led them to make the same decision to commit suicide at different points in time. Fine also shows how these different personalities have affected their souls’ lives since then, for better or for worse.
In fact, the one weak point in the novel is the way Fine depicts the actual relationship between Lela and Nadia, which is supposed to be the driving force of the novel’s action. This has much to do with the time jump between the prologue and the first chapter. We see Lela and Nadia’s first meeting, we hear much about Nadia has pushed Lela towards good, but we witness little interaction between the two young women when both are sober and alive. When we meet the living Nadia, she is either trying to buy drugs or is taking them; we never see the positive, determined girl who forced Lela to apply to college. Though Lela later recognizes that this happy, perfect Nadia was a facade, it would still help readers to understand Lela’s attachment to Nadia if we had more time with the girl Lela thought she knew.
That being said, SANCTUM is the first in a series of books, and Nadia’s arc seems to be finished at its end, leaving plenty of interesting cliffhangers in its wake. Lela encounters the effectively unsettling Mazikin while searching for Nadia within the Suicide Gates, and there is much room for Fine to expand upon how these creatures came to torment the city and why they are viewed as such a great threat by those who run what could in general terms be considered Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. In fact, the exact nature of those who run this afterworld is something I am sure will be expanded upon in subsequent novels. In SANCTUM, we meet two characters who may be, respectively, the archangel Raphael and St Michael, but how they came to live within the Suicide Gates (and if they actually are the Raphael and Michael) is anyone’s guess. Add to that the fact that further books promise to explore the very interesting relationship between Lela and Malachi. I would have to say that the Guards of the Shadowlands series, if it capitalizes on its first novel’s promise, will be quite gripping indeed.
Reviewed by Erin Allen on October 12, 2012