When Pancho's sister dies in mysterious circumstances, he's sure that somebody is to blame. Somebody who rang the police from the motel room she was found in, and fled the scene.
Now a ward of the state, Pancho is taken to St. Anthony's home for boys. He plans to leave as soon as he can, and track down his sister's killer. But there he meets D.Q., another boy with big plans. And his plans involve Pancho.
The Last Summer of the Death Warriors begins by introducing us to two very different teenage boys who both seem to be set on the path towards death. For D.Q., the death is his own. He's sick with an inoperable cancer that is slowly draining the life out of him, and seems to have come to terms with the end that he feels is probably inevitable. For Pancho, the death is one he intends to inflict. He's convinced that his sister was murdered, and since the police aren't interested he's determined to bring the killer to justice in his own way. For the reader, what follows is a powerful and poignant story of male friendship, coming-of-age and what it really means to be alive.
Male leads are something of a minority in YA fiction, and Stork spoils us here with not one but two complex and authentic male characters. Our protagonist is Pancho, whose recent life has been defined by loss and has brought him to a point where his own future means nothing to him. He wants revenge, and fully expects that he'll eventually end up in prison as a result. Nothing else matters, because he has nothing else. He doesn't talk if he can help it, and when threatened his natural response is to fight. He's a tough guy, not a girl's idealised version of a tough guy, and that's probably what makes him such a fascinating character. In contrast, secondary character D.Q. is a boy who dwells on the meaning of the life. He's a big talker. He knows the cancer will probably kill him, and this knowledge is precisely what makes him want to find his purpose and really live while he still has the chance. For some reason, when Pancho arrives at St. Anthony's home for boys, D.Q. feels a connection. He's sure that Pancho will be the one to help him fulfil his purpose, despite the fact that Pancho would rather be left alone.
And so begins a strangely beautiful friendship, and a journey that takes us to the edge of death for both boys - in very different ways. When D.Q.'s estranged mother insists that he come to Alberquerque to undergo a last-chance attempt at a new treatment, he convinces Pancho to accompany him. Since Alberquerque is the hometown of the man he suspects of causing his sister Rosa's death, Pancho agrees. The mystery of Rosa's death is intertwined with D.Q.'s own quest to find his purpose, and the two boys' inner journeys are in many ways like two halves of the same coin. This lends the book a kind of emotional richness that allows one character's experience to give us insight into the other's, and that ultimately means we come to care deeply about both of them.
Though the subject matter might sound a little sombre, The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is written with the kind of wry humour and matter-of-factness that simply tells it how it is. It may be a little too contemplative for some readers' tastes, but it's the kind of story that will leave a lasting impression. It's frank and funny and thoughtful. I started it thinking, like the characters, that I knew exactly where their stories were heading. I didn't, and neither did they. This one is full of surprises.
Out: June 7th 2010, UK / March 1st 2010, US
Many thanks to Scholastic UK for sending me a review copy of this book