‘Paola Santiago and the Sanctuary of Shadows’ by Tehlor Kay Mejia: Pao faces her fears, and the trilogy comes to a legendary conclusion

Our Paola Santiago and the Sanctuary of Shadows book review tackles the third and final book in Tehlor Kay Mejia’s Mexican folklore-inspired middle grade series from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint.

It’s always difficult when a beloved book series comes to a close. There’s that tug-of-war that always plays out inside me between feeling satisfied I’ve completed this wonderous journey and not wanting to say goodbye to some truly spectacular characters. I felt that way when I finished Aru Shah and the Nectar of Immortality, and I definitely felt that way when I finished Sanctuary of Shadows.

Luckily for me (and all of us), Rick Riordan Presents continues to put out hit after hit. Even though we’re closing the chapter on this series, there’s still plenty more to come from the other authors who call this imprint home. If you want to stay up-to-date on everything within the Riordanverse (both new and old), be sure to subscribe to our podcast, Prophecy Radio.

We’re huge fans of Paola over here (check out Prophecy Radio episode #44), and I’ve had a lot of fun seeing this science-minded, experiment-driven, rigid non-believer come face to face with the legendary beings from her culture. Watching Paola reassess her entire world and eventually accept that science and magic can co-exist has been both satisfying and a lot of fun.

In Paola Santiago and the Sanctuary of Shadows, Paola is driven by her desire to rescue Dante from the Void. Her feelings are still hurt over everything he said to her, but she knows he didn’t mean most of what he said. There may be some truth in his words—or so she believes—but he’s still her best friend, and she’ll do everything within her power to save him.

One of the biggest obstacles in her way isn’t even the monsters and the Void, but her own parents. Her father doesn’t want Paola to take on such a heavy burden; he’d rather her just be a normal 13-year-old girl. He’s been fighting monsters for far longer than she has, and just wants Pao to let the adults figure out how to deal with all of their problems.

As you can imagine, this is especially frustrating to Paola after everything she’s done in the last two books. She’s entered the Rift and fought monsters and even rescued her own father from La Llorona, and yet Beto still doesn’t see her as an asset to the team. On the one hand, I understand he’s trying to keep his daughter safe. On the other, if he’s willing to work with other children—aka Los Niños de la Luz—then he should be willing to work with her. How much more does she have to prove herself!?

One of my favorite aspects of both middle grade and young adult fiction is the reminder that children are way smarter and more capable than adults often give them credit for. There’s a scene in this book where Paola speaks up for herself, going against her father’s orders, and forces them to see her in a different light. It is beyond satisfying, and goes to show how much Paola has stepped into a leadership role amongst her friends.

paola santiago and the sanctuary of shadows book review

This book focuses much more on Paola and Emma’s friendship, as well as introduces some new kids into the mix. Robin and Kit are part of the Rainbow Rogues, and two of Emma’s new friends. While Robin is fairly shy and more than a little anxious about, well, everything, Kit isn’t afraid to say what’s on her mind, even if it hurts Paola. Maybe especially if it hurts Paola.

As always, I’m keeping this Paola Santiago and the Sanctuary of Shadows book review spoiler-free, but I did want to touch on Paola’s relationship with Emma, which grows more complicated in this book. The introduction of new friends can cause rifts in old relationships, and we’ve seen it both with Dante’s soccer team and with Emma’s Rainbow Rogues. Pao always seems to be caught in the middle, and it’s up to her and Emma to communicate their feelings and work through their issues.

I love Emma as a character, not only because she’s representative of a good ally who admits her mistakes and works to correct them, but because she’s truly a good friend to Paola and a good person at heart. Dante is a lot darker and more complicated, and while I love that for him, I find myself coming back to Emma time and time again. She shines like a bright white light in this book, equal parts glitter and passion, and as Pao reassess her role in Emma’s life, they both must decide which parts they’re willing to change and which they’re not willing to lose.

Pao is also fighting to hold onto her friendship with Dante, who blames her for much of what’s occurred in previous books. One of the best parts about Sanctuary of Shadows is that it deals with trauma. Both Pao and Dante have PTSD from their experiences, and instead of always putting on a brave face and fighting through it (sometimes literally), Mejia takes time to acknowledge their symptoms and talk about how it’s not something that will go away overnight. As an adult, this is one of the most relatable aspects of the book, and something I truly appreciated seeing in a children’s novel.

And if you thought it couldn’t get any worse than La Llorona, then you’re woefully unprepared for El Cucuy, the Lord of Nightmares. Paola’s already been through so much, but her run-in with the embodiment of fear is almost too much for her to handle. The way Mejia describes him—the feelings he causes in Pao and the sound of his voice—is both exceptionally creative and wholly otherworldly. He’s a fitting villain for the end of this series, and as scary as he is, I enjoyed how he pushed Pao and turned her into the best version of herself.

Because the truth of the matter is that Pao is dealing with a lot right now, from her legacy as La Llorona’s granddaughter to the responsibility she feels for Dante’s disappearance. Like most middle grade books, the themes in Sanctuary of Shadows are important and applicable to people of all ages. If you’ve ever felt like a monster or like you’re not good enough, then I suggest stepping into Paola’s shoes. The way she comes to terms with her past and tackles her future is heroic, and we can all certainly learn from her actions.

Both the other Paola books were spooky and action-packed and full of raw emotions, but Mejia really stepped it up a notch in this one. The stakes are higher than they’ve ever been before, and it’s not just that everyone’s lives are on the line—so are their relationships. The emotional repercussions are sometimes more terrifying than the physical ones, and one way or another, nothing will be the same after the events of Sanctuary. Paola must decide whether or not she can live with those consequences.

But if this Paola Santiago and the Sanctuary of Shadows book review hasn’t convinced you this final book is worth your time, then let me tell you that it contains one of the biggest surprises in the entire catalog of Rick Riordan Presents books, as well as some of the most nuanced queer and mental health representation I’ve seen yet. And considering all the RRP books that have been published so far are at the top of their respective games, that is truly saying something.

‘Paola Santiago and the Sanctuary of Shadows’ published on August 2, 2022

Buy Paola Santiago and the Sanctuary of Shadows by Tehlor Kay Mejia from Disney Books, Bookshop.org, Book Depository, or Amazon. You can also add it to your Goodreads list.

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