Title: Playing for the Devil’s Fire
Author: Phillippe Diederich
Publisher: Cinco Puntos Press
Review copy: Final copy via publisher
Availability: On shelves now
Summary: Thirteen-year-old Boli and his friends are deep in the middle of a game of marbles. An older boy named Mosca has won the prized Devil’s Fire marble. His pals are jealous and want to win it away from him. This is Izayoc, the place of tears, a small pueblo in a tiny valley west of Mexico City where nothing much happens. It’s a typical hot Sunday morning except that on the way to church someone discovers the severed head of Enrique Quintanilla propped on the ledge of one of the cement planters in the plaza and everything changes. Not apocalyptic changes, like phalanxes of men riding on horses with stingers for tails, but subtle ones: poor neighbors turning up with brand-new SUVs, pimpled teens with fancy girls hanging off them. Boli’s parents leave for Toluca and don’t arrive at their destination. No one will talk about it. A washed out masked wrestler turns up one day, a man only interested in finding his next meal. Boli hopes to inspire the luchador to set out with him to find his parents.
Review: A severed head and another dead body with missing fingers are the two most obvious clues that things are changing in the small town of Izayoc. The name Izayoc is Nahuatl and means the place of tears which rapidly becomes a more and more accurate description. There are multiple grisly scenes and many heart-breaking moments throughout the book. Boli’s story is haunting and difficult to read, but is well worth the time and potential tears.
My heart ached for Boli as he watched his world crumble. The horrifying deaths are bad enough, but the shattering of trust is also devastating. Law enforcement is no help when his family goes missing and it’s hard to know where the loyalties of neighbors and strangers may lie on any given day. Boli is a pretty trusting kid initially. He is slow to believe the evidence staring at him. He hangs out with some kids who curse and fantasizes about an older girl, but he is a pretty innocent child as the story begins to unfold. He idolized luchadores and wants to be a hero like them – not a superhero, but a real person who is responsible for fighting crime and also happens to get the girl in the end. Unfortunately, Boli and his town become witness to plenty of crime to fight, but it’s not like in the movies or lucha libre. The crime and violence is all too real and can be downright gruesome.
Boli mainly places his trust in his family and his faith. He does have questions though. Father Gregorio teaches that one shouldn’t question God’s motives for what happens to people. Boli ponders the idea that life is a journey of living, suffering and dying. This type of thinking seems to keep people trapped in their situations though. His friend Mosca tells him that Catholicism is “all a fairy tale made up by the priests. All they wanted was to enslave the Indians and steal the gold of the Aztecs.”
Diederich does several things very well. He is able to dig a little into theology and religion without becoming preachy and dry. He also paints the scenes thoroughly. This book has a movie-like quality. This is where Diederich’s experience as a photographer may have been a big benefit. The dead bodies, trash heaps, marble games and lucha libre matches along with so many other situations are vividly described. One could say that sometimes maybe they’re even almost too vivid for comfort. Diederich also created memorable characters who wormed their way into my heart. Boli is facing enormous challenges but meets them with resilience for the most part. His sister Gaby also persists in spite of fear and heartache. Their abuela is experiencing dementia, but is also a strong force in their lives. I love the relationship Boli has with her. He appreciates her ability to laugh and hold onto whatever joke is bringing her joy. And then there is the washed up wrestler who stumbles into their lives and provides hope for Boli.
The story is set in Mexico and there are Spanish words and phrases present, but the author does provide a glossary. Like many of the events in the book, the words can be harsh, but they fit the situations and the characters and enrich the story.
Recommendation: Buy it now. This is a book that takes a hard look at the devastation that can come along with the drug business and the heavy toll it can take on individuals. This is a book that will stay in my memory for a long time to come.
Blog Tour: To learn more about the book and author, visit The Pirate Tree tomorrow.
5 Replies to “Review: Playing for the Devil’s Fire”
Thank you for this review, Crystal! I enjoyed interviewing the author for The Pirate Tree, and with current events in both Mexico and the U.S., the story is so timely. One of the things I noticed is that the narcos are not the only ones threatening the town. They’re part and parcel of the entire system of capitalism, where almost all souls have a price (including the priest) and the ones that don’t go quickly to Heaven.
I should probably distinguish here between the small businesses that once existed and are being forced out, Boli’s parents’ bakery being one of them, and the multinational corporations that are taking their place. The family’s panaderia was a true community business that gave a recovered alcoholic a second chance at life as a baker and donated leftover rolls to people living in poverty. Diederich draws this setting, and the contrast between the two visions so well without being heavy handed.
Excellent points Lyn. I totally agree. It doesn’t come off as teaching, but you can certainly see that contrast between the two.
Great review! What a rich tapestry. Having grown up in a changing neighborhood, where violence slowly took over, I can relate.
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