Happy Tuesday, bibliophiles!
I’ve had The Last Cuentista on my TBR for a fair amount of time, but I’d forgotten about it until I saw a copy at my college’s library, so I ended up picking it up. I remembered almost nothing about the synopsis or why I wanted to pick it up in the first place, but what I found was a beautiful tale of the power of storytelling.
Enjoy this week’s review!
Petra Peña loves nothing more than listening to the stories of her abuelita, and dreams of someday being a storyteller like her. But when Earth is put in danger by a comet, she must abandon her abuelita and travel with her parents and younger brother to planet Sagan, where humanity can start over. But on the centuries-long journey, the ship is infiltrated by the Collective, a shady organization who aims to erase the crimes of humanity’s past by wiping the memories of all the passengers. When Petra wakes up, she realizes that she is the only one who remembers Earth—and the only one who can save what remains of the human species from forgetting itself altogether.
TW/CW: loss of loved ones, descriptions of injury, fear, descriptions of sleep paralysis
Good middle-grade sci-fi is hard to come by, but The Last Cuentista was nothing short of wonderful. With a story as beautiful as its cover, it’s a shining testament to the power of storytelling and a poignant reminder to never forget where you came from.
I know I opened with specifically saying that The Last Cuentista is middle-grade, but I’d say it toes the line right between middle grade and YA. Petra is 13 years old, and there’s certainly some more middle-grade aspects to how the themes are dealt with and some of the character interactions, but it borders on hardcore, nail-biting sci-fi in other places. Think of every piece of sci-fi media that deals with cryosleep for several centuries, and think of all of the potential, existential obstacles that come along with it: chances are, they do end up appearing in this book. It’s a weird place to navigate reading-wise when you’re that age (I certainly remember wishing that there was an in-between place for middle grade and YA), but The Last Cuentista retains a middle-grade sensibility without downplaying the integrity of its themes and world simply because it’s aimed at a younger audience.
One of the strongest aspects of The Last Cuentista was Donna Barba Higuera’s fantastic writing. She especially excels at sensory details; in a particularly nail-biting scene when Petra is still awake while her pod is preparing for cryosleep (AAAAAAAAAAAAAA), Higuera filled her prose with all kinds of sensory details that really sold the crushing fear of the moment. Her descriptions of the bizarre flora and fauna of Sagan are just as lush, painting a picture of an alien planet just as well as Petra’s abuelita paints stories. Higuera’s ability to create suspense and her ability to spin beautiful prose went hand in hand, making for a novel that had me invested the whole time.
The Last Cuentista also had some beautiful themes; Petra’s quest to keep the history of humanity alive through storytelling serves to remind us that we should never forget who we are, despite having a history wracked with war and darkness. The Collective was a perfect, sinister dystopia to set this theme against, and they also added to the suspense that Higuera consistently built throughout the novel. Petra’s journey to return humanity to its roots was poignantly written and so wonderfully timely, and I have no doubt that The Last Cuentista will be a book that stands the test of time. In the end, we are all united by the stories that bind us together. Never underestimate the power of a storyteller.
My only gripe with this novel were some of the characters. Other than Petra and her family, most of the side characters felt interchangeable. A few of them had a few base traits to go off of, but other than that, I often found myself getting them mixed up. The switch from the Greek letter/number designations to nicknames didn’t necessarily help, although it was clearly important thematically. I wish we’d gotten as much development out of at least some of them as we got with Petra and maybe Voxy—the story was powerful by itself, but it would have been more so if some of the other characters were more fleshed out.
All in all, a beautiful piece of sci-fi that reminds us that stories have the power to do anything—change us, teach us, and above all, unite us. 4 stars!
The Last Cuentista is a standalone, but Donna Barba Higuera is also the author of Lupe Wong Won’t Dance, as well as the picture books El Cucuy is Scared, Too! and the upcoming The Yellow Handkerchief.
That’s it for this week’s Book Review Tuesday! Have a wonderful rest of your day, and take care of yourselves!