We’re back, and we’re here to review for you. Thanks to everyone for your Round Robin Review suggestions. Our lucky winner was The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork.
Pancho Sanchez, our protagonist, is a teenager with no family: his parents are both dead, and his mentally-challenged older sister, Rosa, has just died in an apparent accident. Pancho is sent to an orphanage where he’s assigned to be a companion to D.Q., a boy in a wheelchair who is dying of cancer. D.Q. is writing the “Death Warrior Manifesto,” which outlines rules for life (confusing, I know). The manifesto is all about living your life well, even if you have limited time.
Underlining the story and providing the impetus for Pancho’s “coming of age” is his suspicion that his sister did not die in an accident and was, in fact, murdered. Unfortunately, Pancho pulls a Hamlet and does absolutely nothing about it for the vast majority of the book (except act angry). Will Pancho take vengeance upon the culprit? Read the book to find out! (It’s not hard to guess.)
This isn’t my kind of book normally, since I tend to stay away from realistic contemporary YA fiction. I found the characters very hard to relate to, mostly unsympathetic, and largely unrealistic (in particular the wise-beyond-his-years D.Q.). I couldn’t bring myself to care about D.Q.’s fight for emancipation from his mother, who is trying to force him into a clinical trial for his illness that D.Q. simply does not want to do. I never understood why the two boys were friends, and none of the ancillary characters were interesting at all.
I listened to this one on audio, which may have been a mistake. Frankly, the book bored me, and the narrator didn’t help things, since he sounded equally bored. Maybe I would have enjoyed the book more if I read the print version (or maybe I simply would have given up). For a book with “death warrior” in the title, there’s very little excitement or action, and even when Pancho gets into fights, it’s still boring.
Last Summer of the Death Warriors is so obviously meant to be a coming of age story, but that doesn’t mean it has to be dull or so consumed with making a point. It does not compare favorably with Bog Child, another clear coming of age novel that I listened to recently which managed to be all about growing up but still engrossing the whole way through.
The writing was OK, but not good enough to make it a worthwhile read. I think it will have a lot of trouble finding an audience, which Kelly discusses more below. There were a few flashes of interesting stuff, in particular a few pages at the end when Pancho confronts his sister’s suspected killer, but they were few and far between. Lots of other people have enjoyed this book immensely – I’m just not one of them.
As you may or may not recall, I really did not care for Stork’s previous book, Marcelo in the Real World. Going into this book made me nervous and I think I may have even mentioned dreading it a little bit. I was wrong, though, as I found The Last Summer of the Death Warriors to be quite enjoyable.
Pancho’s assignment to be D. Q.’s assistant shed light into the core of both characters, in that we learn that Pancho isn’t quite the tough kid he pretends to be, nor is D. Q. the weak sick kid he could be. I think one of the things that works is over the course of the book, we see they are different sides of the same coin. I could argue, probably, that Pancho had a bit of D. Q. in him, especially at the end of the book when he finally “comes of age.”
Stork’s writing style is pleasing — I find he’s able to write strong dialog, and his settings are easy to picture. He weaves in excellent literary elements, in a way that will work for strong readers.
However, I have the same problem with this title as I did with Marcelo when it comes to audience: I don’t know how wide a teen appeal Stork has. What he does in his writing is come to a “point” or a moment when there is a true coming-of-age realization, and the way it is done doesn’t come off as authentic to me. It almost feels like it panders a bit to an adult audience, who will find his books worth sharing with teens because it is about growing up and done in a smooth manner, but teens themselves likely won’t pick this up on their own. I liked it as an adult reader, but as a teenage reader, I’d never have touched this one. It makes me curious what would happen were his titles marketed at an older readership — plenty of adult titles feature teenage characters and do well (think Prep or The Lovely Bones or A Separate Peace, etc.).
This is a worthwhile read, and I believe it’s one we’ll be seeing around some more this year. It had an initial loud reception when published, as many were excited to see Stork’s next adventure post-Marcelo, and I think this might be the one that snags him his much-deserved recognition come awards time.
Needless to say, I was skeptical. And the awful typeface really didn’t help. I spent the first 25 pages thinking, “Ugh, what is up with this font?” I only picked up the book again when I found myself on an airplane without a functioning entertainment system and a low battery on my iPhone.
I’m thankful that I did. I managed to get over my annoyance with the physical aspects of the book and starting getting emotionally involved with the story. Unlike Kim, I didn’t find the book boring in the slightest. The Last Summer of the Death Warriors concentrates on its characters without becoming treacly or too “after-school special.”
Pancho was obviously angry about the untimely demise of his entire family. He wanted to seek revenge, but Stork places real obstacles in his way — obstacles that make sense for a 17 year old boy. Those limitations include lack of opportunity to escape his “real” life, inability to find adequate transportation, and an inner turmoil over whether or not he could leave behind a burgeoning relationship. Pancho’s hesitation works as more than just a device to allow the plot to proceed; it’s a logical extension of his situation.
DQ offers more of a challenge for the reader. Any character who is presented as wise beyond his years can so easily be more of a caricature than a living entity. DQ, at first glance, is physically fragile and emotionally robust. As the novel continues, we realize that DQ’s faith can be challenged just as much as his body. And DQ’s struggle with his mother makes sense to me. She abandoned him at a young age, so he wants to show her that he can cope with the realities of his cancer without her assistance. All of the kind gestures in the world cannot compensate for the knowledge that she left him. DQ’s realization that he might be able to accept her help makes sense as he comes to term with the chinks in his Death Warrior’s armor.
Plotting isn’t the strongest aspect of this novel. Kelly is right — The Last Summer of the Death Warriors could be a difficult sell to teenagers without a shiny “hook.” But I see a lot of patrons who need a book like this — who need a protoganist who looks like them, acts like them, talks like them. Pancho is a rare figure in YA literature. I think the book works thanks to him.