City of Saints and Thieves is a Young Adult (YA) novel set in Kenya in a fictitious city called Sangui. The story’s protagonist Tina, is a homeless Congolese refugee turned skillful thief on a singular mission to avenge the murder of her mother by murdering the man who did it. The story is told entirely from her perspective and written in the first person voice of a teenage girl. Her quest for revenge takes her on a dangerous journey across multiple countries as she chases down clues, unearthing secrets that threaten her life and those of her friends Michael and Boy-Boy.
The characters are well developed and the relationships between them fraught with enough tension to keep the audience engaged. Tina is a wounded child whose life has been touched by unspeakable heartache and pain. She has a sister, the love child of her mother’s illicit affair with her married boss, the man Tina’s has been training for four years in order to destroy and murder. Her single-minded focus and commitment to that cause, to avenge her mother to the exclusion of all else is quite endearing.
Michael is Tina’s childhood friend whose father Tina is convinced murdered her mother. They form an unlikely alliance to get to the bottom of it, with Michael’s motivation being to prove his father’s innocence. Her best friend Boy-Boy is a homosexual living in a hostile, homophobic environment and the tech wiz arm of their criminal association. Together the three hunt for clues in an adventure that is equal parts fascinating and unbelievable.
Corruption is a key theme in the city of saints and thieves, especially the fact that wealth generally places one above the law. The book also does a wonderful job of illustrating the class divide and societal stratification in the differences in the lives lived by the affluent and the destitute within the same area.
Tina, her mother, and sister come to Kenya as refugees fleeing the war in Congo. It paints a stark picture of war and the lived experiences of people caught up in it. The friendship between the three adds some much-needed lightness to a story that is otherwise filled with so much underlying pain. The budding teenage romance also adds so much sweetness. Like many other Young Adult novels featuring the obligatory one female, two males dynamic, I ask as others have before, why are there no other permutations to this male/female mixing?
City of Saints and Thieves is an intriguing suspense novel but there’s a sense in which it requires a lot in the way of suspending disbelief especially for Kenyans. For foreigners who know nothing about Kenya, it’s easy to get lost in the world of the story, while for Kenyans there’s a constant comparison of the world of the story to the world here as you know it so whenever the book falls short and it does often, that detracts from the overall enjoyment. The use of Sheng and Swahili immediately reveal the fact that the writer is someone for whom Swahili is at least the fourth language. It’s outright cringe-worthy. You may even want to throw the book against something hard so if you’re reading a soft copy, you best be prepared for that. You’ve been warned.
The chapters begin with Tina’s rules for being a world-class thief who does not get caught which I especially enjoyed. Overall, it was a satisfying read for me especially because it’s my first Young Adult novel set in Kenya. That was enough to make it a delightful treat.
City of Saints and Thieves’ author Natalie C. Anderson is an American writer and international development professional living in Geneva, Switzerland. She’s spent the last decade working with NGO’s and the United Nations on refugee relief and development, mainly in Africa.