Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls by Kaela Rivera
Kaela Rivera sets her novel Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls (2021) against a backdrop of Mexican/Meso-American/Southwestern folktales and legends, sending the titular protagonist on a quest to rescue her older sister. The story will probably mostly satisfy its target Middle Grade audience but is less likely to appeal to even slightly older readers.
Tierra del Sol is a remote town surrounded by desert that each year enacts a ritualist dance to frighten away the dark criaturas that have long threatened Cece’s people. Cece herself is too young for the dance and is as well more than a little distrusted by the townspeople due to an incident from her childhood. Her sister, on the other hand, is loved by all. Unfortunately, she’s also caught the eye of El Sombreron, one of the worst of the dark criaturas, and when he kidnaps her on the night of the dance and takes her off to Devil’s Alley, Cece is driven to get her back, not only out of love but also out of a sense of guilt.
To rescue her sister, though, she’ll have to become a bruja — one who has stolen the soul of a criatura — and then win the multi-night bruja competition, the only way for a human to enter Devil’s Alley. Along the way, she unexpectedly finds herself allied (reluctantly on his part) with Coyote, the Great Namer.
The underlying mythos is perhaps the best part of the story. First, it’s likely to be unfamiliar to a large number of young readers, offering up a refreshingly new cast of characters, as opposed to the well-mined Western European fantasy creatures. Rivera does a nice job of not simply retelling the stories but putting her own take on them, adding even more to that sense of originality. Second, the characters are depicted with a captivating complexity to them. Coyote, in particular, is a character of dual natures, one who both loves humans for what they could be and is also angered and saddened by what they do/have done. This complexity is enhanced by a clever twist Rivera adds in — the idea that the criaturas have multiple (but finite) lives, with each rebirth costing them more in terms of power and memory. So Coyote is, on the one hand, truly ancient, if one traces him back to his first life, but in this incarnation, he is relatively young and cannot remember all that he once knew or did. He is, for instance, responsible for creating Devil’s Alley, though he cannot recall why he did so.
Cece herself is, in most ways, your run-of-the-mill MG/YA hero: spunky, stubborn, often sassy, persevering in the face of long odds, and an outsider. She has long been overshadowed by her prettier, more engaging sister, and is also, as noted, regarded with suspicion by her fellow townspeople thanks to that childhood incident. Darker elements of her story arc include some domestic violence and an aunt who became a bruja and disappeared. She’s an engaging enough character and will particularly win over readers with how she refuses to employ the typical bruja methods of cruelty and dominance and instead relies on her kindness and sense of fairness.
My major issue with Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls, and why I think it will have little appeal beyond its MG audience (or even for more mature MG readers) is that Cece fulfills her tasks and overcomes her obstacles too quickly and easily, with little tension, danger, or drama. She needs to get a criatura and does so in an afternoon. She needs a second, and there it is, no matter how nearly unprecedented that is for a bruja. A third? No problem.
No sooner is an obstacle laid down than it’s overcome. As for how one gains a criatura’s soul, I’ll just say it struck me as both implausibly simple and more than a little anticlimactic. And while the mythos is, as noted, the strongest aspect of the story, it still feels a bit shallow/sketchy in its totality. Finally, the family problems with a father who drinks and who can get physical are glossed over too quickly for my liking, almost to the point of trivializing the violence, though I’m sure that wasn’t the intent.
Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls is a fast-moving story with a likable main character who is easy to root for, all set against a refreshingly atypical background. While its speedy plotting will probably win over younger readers, I can’t help but feel there was a missed opportunity to slow down and offer up a richer story and character that would engage a wider audience.