Lotería by Karla Arenas Valenti is a masterpiece of magical realism, transporting the reader to the mythical Kingdom of Las Pozas and into a game of chance betwixt Life and Death.
Life and Death meet each year to play the card game Lotería with the highest of stakes: a person’s life. If Life wins the game, the person lives to old age. If Death wins, they perish early. Unbeknownst to her, eleven year old Clara is this year’s chosen person whose life is at stake. Each card Life and Death flip will impact her life, from a scorpion to an arrow to El Diablo. But Clara is simply living her life, and when her little cousin disappears, she follows him all the way to the mysterious Kingdom of Las Pozas. It is there she will have to confront who she is and what she’s willing to risk to save her cousin.
This story is beautifully told, a tapestry of well-developed characters moving through a tightly woven plot. Life and Death’s conversations are philosophical and thought provoking, while Clara’s journey will leave the reader holding their breath and thinking of ways for her to succeed.
Every character, from major players to minor appearances, is superbly well developed. The settings are gorgeously described, painting vivid images that will stay with the reader long after the last page. The real- life inspired settings of Oaxaca City and the Árbol del Tule felt just as real as the stunning as the mythical realm in which Clara and her cousin find themselves.
As a reader, I was fully absorbed into this story. I couldn’t stop thinking about the book when I wasn’t reading it, and my fingers itched to pick it up each time reality intervened and made me exist outside the wondrously crafted world Valenti has given us.
This book is perfect for fans of magical realism and those who like darker, thought provoking stories. It has universal themes of familial love, self-doubt, and finding strength when you most need it. There are some elements of hero’s journey and fairy tale components, yet it also stands alone as its own unique blend. As far as middle grade goes, it is darker than typical middle grade fare and there is a spoiler at the end of the post to address this, if it is something you’re worried about. I recommend it for older middle grade readers and YA readers as well.
Lotería has the deep messaging of Coco with the dangerous yet whimsical nature of Alice in Wonderland, combined to make a one of kind story that will both make you think and break your heart.
Thank you to author Karla Arenas Valenti, Random House Children’s, Knopf Books for Young Readers, and Net Galley for an advanced copy such that I could write this review.
Lotería is available now and you can buy it from Bookshop.org here and Amazon here. [Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and Amazon. I will earn a commission (at no extra cost to you) if you click through and make a purchase.]
I am going to include a spoiler after the image, as this middle grade book warrants a warning.
This is not a happily ever after book. Children are kidnapped, injured, and perish, including a main character. I absolutely sobbed through the last chapter, and though it is poignant, it is also heart wrenching. I still recommend the book, but I also suggest the caregivers read it before the young readers to ensure it is appropriate for where the child is in their reading journey. I only recommend this book for higher middle grade readers and those who may typically read YA.