Book Review: Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland – An Unforgettable Genre-Bending Story that Explores the Beauty and Power of Love, Loss and the Violence of Deportation

Synopsis:

Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe meets Roswell by way of Laurie Halse Anderson in this astonishing, genre-bending novel about a Mexican American teen who discovers profound connections between immigration, folklore, and alien life.

It’s been three years since ICE raids and phone calls from Mexico and an ill-fated walk across the Sonoran. Three years since Sia Martinez’s mom disappeared. Sia wants to move on, but it’s hard in her tiny Arizona town where people refer to her mom’s deportation as “an unfortunate incident.”

Sia knows that her mom must be dead, but every new moon Sia drives into the desert and lights San Anthony and la Guadalupe candles to guide her mom home.

Then one night, under a million stars, Sia’s life and the world as we know it cracks wide open. Because a blue-lit spacecraft crashes in front of Sia’s car…and it’s carrying her mom, who’s very much alive.

As Sia races to save her mom from armed-quite-possibly-alien soldiers, she uncovers secrets as profound as they are dangerous in this stunning and inventive exploration of first love, family, immigration, and our vast, limitless universe.

I was provided an Audiobook Listening Copy by Libro.fm in exchange for an honest review.

When I picked up Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything on a whim, I had absolutely no idea that this magnificent book would take me on this incredible emotional genre-bending rollercoaster. I had no idea, because I often don’t read the synopsis of books before I read them. A leap of faith, I know, but with Sia Martinez? The surprise and whiplash that I felt was absolutely worth it.

Sia Martinez follows the eponymous Mexican teen lead, who is grieving the loss of her mother, who was deported by ICE and disappeared when she attempted the walk across the Sonoran Desert. When there’s a new boy in town, Sia falls in love with him, but she later discovers that he has secrets of his own that are connected to Sia’s mother’s death. But when a spacecraft crash lands in front of her, who is inside will upend her life and change everything forever.

Friends, if you have any inkling to read this book, I ask that you don’t read the synopsis. I truly believe that this is the sort of book that you have to go into without knowing what happens (in which the synopsis gives it away!) and with an open mind. And I advise this because my personal experience of reading Sia Martinez is truly one of the most remarkable and unexpected reading journeys I’ve ever embarked on. With that said, I’m going to talk about this book and what I loved about it without spoiling what happens.

The first half: contemporary tones about grief, trauma, and love

The first half of this book reads like a contemporary novel and offers a gorgeous yet heart-aching dive into Sia’s life as she grapples with grief of her mother’s death. But it’s not really a story just about grief and death, though these themes do permeates across the story. Rather, Sia Martinez also offers a contemplative and thoughtful portrayal of Sia’s life. We become familiar with her family life – the beautiful and loving relationship between Sia and her father, as well as the comfort of her grandmother’s spirit, who is part of Sia’s life in flitting yet warm ways. We get to know her close friendship with Rose and the challenges they encounter when they begin to date others and fall out of sync with each other, as friends often do.

We also get to witness Sia fall in love for the very first time, with Noah, the new boy in town. I enjoyed their romance and the soft and sweet moments that they share. Though Sia and Noah’s romance feels like it ought to unfold in an ‘uncomplicated’ way, we also learn of Sia’s trauma from a sexual assault in the past and how Noah’s family secret intertwines with Sia’s life – which makes their romance more complicated than readers may expect. Yet, this isn’t a detraction from the romance; rather, it subverts the idea that romances are perfect with a natural linear progression, but instead presents a sex-positive love story that is realistic in its setbacks, understanding, and ultimately healing.

The second half: a SFF tonal shift that explores institutional violence and power

What I’m really looking forward to talking about though, is the second half of the story. Midway through the story, there is a sudden and surprising tonal shift in the story that elevates the story to an entirely new level. As I mentioned earlier, I was so surprised by the plot twist, that I was literally reeling – but not in a bad way at all. At first, I was definitely caught off guard, but the more I thought about it … I thought it was genius and so thoughtful.

For what may seem like an ‘action-packed’ and science-fiction-esque second half of the novel – and it definitely is! it is certainly a departure from the contemporary feel of the first half – I thought the second half of Sia Martinez was actually a phenomenal and poetic metaphor for deportation and the subsequent violence that follows separation. Specifically, the pain and grief inflicted by institutional violence, but also the pain and grief suffered by victims are actively and intentionally hidden and erased from the world.

Indeed, the influences from The X-Files and use of science-fiction elements in the story are an interpretation of very real nightmare-ish realities, and the story provides a lens that is uniquely Latine/Mexican, offering a perspective of racist and violent institutions that tear families apart, destroys lives, destroy bodies, displace, and exploit. I argue against the idea that the science-fiction elements don’t fit into the story. Rather, I argue that how speculative elements align well with Sia’s history and experiences. It’s a projection of a collective consciousness that is very real for Sia and many other Mexican and Latine people; one tied into fears of ICE, police violence, and societal apathy. But rather than tell a story that is firmly realistic, I really did love that Raquel elevated the story to one that is interesting, compelling, and creative with its genre-bending and tonal shift.

But Sia Martinez isn’t a pain narrative – rather, it’s a story that depicts pain in an honest way while also subverting the idea that victims are ‘others’, helpless, powerless, and just victims. Characters in the second half have superpowers, and I felt like this was a way of giving power and agency to those who are often disenfranchised and disempowered. And I thought the way that Raquel turned this story around – in a way that was very real, energising, but also hopeful – was fantastic.

At the heart of this book, Sia Martinez is about how far you would go for the person that you love. Though it depicts a lot of themes that are painful and traumatic, I also felt that this story showed how hope can be such a fickle thing but also that hope holds immense power to change everything – and it is hope that helps us find our feet to move on despite such immense loss.

MY CONCLUSION: RECOMMENDED

Sia Martinez is truly one of the most memorable, most unique, and most fascinating books that I have ever read, and it was such a joy to read. There is so much beauty and nuance in this book, if only you take a moment to dig a little deeper, and the story offers such a great reading experience.

Is this book for you?

Premise in a sentence: A Mexican-American teen who grieves the death of her mother, falls in love with the new boy in town, but she later discovers that he has secrets of his own that are connected to Sia’s mother’s death.

Perfect for: readers who enjoy genre-bending stories; readers who are open to stories with unique storytelling; readers who enjoy engaging with a story’s themes.

Think twice if: you’re not a fan of sudden tonal shifts; not a fan of speculative fiction.

Genre: young adult, contemporary, speculative fiction/science-fiction

Trigger/content warning: grief, death of a loved one, murder, deportation, ICE, PTSD, trauma, sexual assault, racism, sexism, parental abuse, sex (not explicit

Goodreads | Blackwells | Indiebound | Book Depository | Bookshop | My short review on Goodreads

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