Title: City of Saints and Thieves
Author: Natalie C. Anderson
Genre: YA Contemporary (but very dark, with mystery/thriller aspects thrown in)
Themes: Refugees and refugee culture, family, violence, gang culture
Blurb (from Goodreads):In the shadows of Sangui City, there lives a girl who doesn’t exist. After fleeing the Congo as refugees, Tina and her mother arrived in Kenya looking for the chance to build a new life and home. Her mother quickly found work as a maid for a prominent family, headed by Roland Greyhill, one of the city’s most respected business leaders. But Tina soon learns that the Greyhill fortune was made from a life of corruption and crime. So when her mother is found shot to death in Mr. Greyhill’s personal study, she knows exactly who’s behind it.
With revenge always on her mind, Tina spends the next four years surviving on the streets alone, working as a master thief for the Goondas, Sangui City’s local gang. It’s a job for the Goondas that finally brings Tina back to the Greyhill estate, giving her the chance for vengeance she’s been waiting for. But as soon as she steps inside the lavish home, she’s overtaken by the pain of old wounds and the pull of past friendships, setting into motion a dangerous cascade of events that could, at any moment, cost Tina her life. But finally uncovering the incredible truth about who killed her mother—and why—keeps her holding on in this fast-paced nail-biting thriller.
I should probably admit now that I was about halfway through this book when I had to leave my phone (I read it as an ebook) for 8 days, and so when I read the second half, there were a few specific allusions to details that I didn’t quite remember. This was like when I read Lord of the Rings, except there were 6 months in between each time I picked it up, and it took me 2 years, not 3 weeks.
Anyway, this is set in modern day East Africa, mostly Kenya. I don’t think I’ve read any other YA book set in actual Africa. I mean, this is part of the English speaking world, just like India (kind of) is, and it’s nice to learn about the world through reading.
Sangui city, where the main character Tina lives, is apparently a fictional combination of Mombasa and Nairobi. The vibrant busy-ness and street culture and hint of danger sounded like some Indian cities, maybe Mumbai where I’ve never been but whatever. I thought the author depicted the inequality between rich and poor people that’s so startling really well. Some of the story is set in Congo, and that setting was also totally on point.
The author, I gather, worked with refugees from places like the DRC in Kenya, and that really showed. The story follows Tina, whose mother fled with her from Congo when she was quite little. Her mother was murdered where she worked as a maid, and Tina wants to kill the murder, partly for her own revenge and partly for the Goondas, the gang she works for. Tina ends up teaming with Boyboy, a fabulous (in the camp sense of the word, yes) IT genius, and Michael, whose father had employed Tina’s mother.
Tina’s allegiances to her younger half sister, to the Goondas, to Michael and Boyboy affect what she decides to do. It’s a fine line and the way she decides to balance them is really well depicted. You could argue that it’s unrealistic that she’s the only girl in the gang (most her age and in her situation are prostitutes), but the story in general, including the details, were realistic and explained. The interactions of foreign mining companies, ‘government-backed’ militias, private soldiers, and others in the Congo also felt realistic, though depressing. But the author also shows us that through all the violence innocent Congolese suffer, there is ordinary life, and hope. Tina’s situation, as well as her part of the world’s was shown as (I think) it is; dark and depressing, yet still hopeful.
I liked the character development—Tina has to accept uncertainty, even as she learns more about her mother, as well as learning about how being a refugee (and visiting where she came from) has affected who she is. I must say that the other characters, while interesting, didn’t feel very round or complex. But the book was packed with setting and plot and probably didn’t have enough room for Tina’s first person opinion about them changing. One small qualm: there was a tiny bit of romance, but while it didn’t really distract from the plot, it felt really unnecessary? I don’t know. I guess City of Saints and Thieves was such and interesting, important story that I didn’t feel it needed romance just to make it relatable to teenagers in the West or something. Anyway.
This book is so important to read, and I learned a lot about this region of Africa and some of the violence I didn’t know about before.
Have you read any YA books set anywhere in Africa? Do you have any recommendations? Do you enjoy mystery/thriller style books?