by Mal Peet
Walker Books. Young Adult. Paperback rrp $16.95
Kidnap, murder, dark tribal magic and a soccer game. Penalty by Carnegie Medal winning author Mal Peet is a superb piece of storytelling.
While it is not a sequel to his multi award-winning novel Keeper, it reprises the character of Paul Faustino, South America’s top sports journalist. Faustino is on holiday in San Juan when the teenage star of the Deportivo Football Club, amazingly misses a simple penalty and walks from the field – to disappear. El Brujhito, ‘the little magician’ is famous for his magic on the soccer field but how has he managed to evaporate into thin air?
Throughout the real-time narrative, Peet interweaves a history of slavery, dark religion and the deep spiritual power of the ‘pai’ or tribal priest. In this second strand of story, a young slave, Paracleto, opens his heart to the great ancestor Maco and a return to the old ways. Decades later this history casts its shadow across the soccer fields of San Juan.
The La Nacion newspaper already has a local journalist, Max Salez, covering the El Brujhito disappearance and Faustino, although intrigued, is initially loathe to become involved. However, when Salez is murdered, Faustino has no choice.
He begins to ask questions and finds a local guide, Edson Bakula, particularly helpful. A dangerous world of corruption, murder and the occult powers of the pai slowly unfold. Rico (El Bruhjito) is being held hostage and Faustino is forced to accompany a rescue group which includes Bakula and Rico’s sister.
When Rico is found they easily overcome the two men guarding him. Yet stronger constraints are still in place. Rico believes the pai has separated his spirit from his body and he cannot leave until the curse is lifted.
What is the real penalty and who has paid it? What is faith and how much do we need? Penalty raises thought provoking questions without interrupting the flow of a suspenseful and exciting story. This is a great book and Peet is capable of his own magic – beautiful language, sinister subplots, wonderful images of South America and action galore. Something to suit everyone. Readers from 14 to infinity will enjoy Penalty.