Kate’s Review: “Piñata”

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Book: “Piñata” by Leopoldo Gout

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, March 2023

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: A Head Full of Ghosts meets Hereditary in Piñata, a terrifying possession tale by author and artist Leopoldo Gout.

Carmen Sanchez is back in her home country of Mexico, overseeing the renovation of an ancient cathedral into a boutique hotel. Her teen daughters, Izel and Luna, are with her for the summer, and left to fill their afternoons unsupervised in a foreign city.

The locals treat the Sanchez women like outsiders, while Carmen’s contractors openly defy and sabotage her work. After a disastrous accident at the construction site nearly injures Luna, Carmen’s had enough. They’re leaving.

Back in New York, Luna begins acting strange, and only Izel notices the chilling changes happening to her younger sister. But it might be too late for the Sanchez family to escape what’s been awakened

Piñata is a bone-chilling story about how the sinister repercussions of our past can return to haunt us.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

I love it when a horror novel really gets under my skin. The kind that I can’t really shake while I’m reading it, and the kind that just sits on my consciousness when I’m doing other things or when I have finished it. When I saw “Piñata” by Leopoldo Gout on my various timelines and Goodreads feeds, I decided to request it because it sounded fairly promising. Sure, it was a possession story, which tend to be hit or miss for me, but I do love a good social commentary in my horror, and this one sounded like it had some good potential for thoughtful take downs of colonialism. So I started it, thinking it would be interesting at least. And almost immediately after starting this book, I was deeply, deeply unsettled, and knew I wasn’t going to shake this one for awhile. And it’s not even the supernatural beings in this that did that to me.

For someone who doesn’t usually gel with possession stories, “Piñata” is one of those stories that absolutely works for me because it makes it feel unique, or at least turns it a bit on its head. I really liked following Carmen and her daughters Izel and Luna as they spend time in Mexico, and I loved seeing the slowly building unease as Luna starts to behave strangely after an accident at the Church site on a restoration project that Carmen was working on. From Luna not quite acting right, to weird hallucinations of butterflies and a strange old woman, to ghastly imagery of rage filled demons that torment Carmen and those around her, Gout really knows how to create a visceral horror moment. I also loved the subversion of the more traditional Western possession stories and how it incorporates pre-Columbian folklore and mythology, as it feels less about the Christian idea of demons and more about otherworldly beings with a score to settle.

I’m still very much into reading horror novels that take on greater social themes, and “Piñata” may be one of the more harrowing and upsetting ones that I’ve read. The theme here is that of colonialism, and the way that Indigenous people in Mexico (and the greater Americas) were victimized, abused, and destroyed by Western invaders, and in this book it is specifically the Spanish and the Catholic Church. The prologue alone had me floored and shaking with abject horror and rage, as it really sets up the story of angry spirits in a Mexican church that find themselves awakened and hellbent on revenge. Gout doesn’t shy away from the atrocities that the Spanish and the Church perpetuated against Indigenous groups, and it makes for unrelenting horrors as we see the long lasting effects of the colonizers, not just through a possessed child but also through violence in Mexico, dangerous situations at the border, and racism and colorism. It’s upsetting and it should be upsetting.

The one thing that took me out of this book, however, was the uneven pacing of it. I love a slow burn and slow build in my horror, especially when the slow burn knows how to tap into anxiety and to ratchet up the tension until it is practically at the breaking point. I liked the way that Gout carefully builds up the tension regarding Luna’s possession as well as the visions that our characters are seeing. The problem is that when it all comes to a head, and a LOT has to come to a head, a great majority of it happens practically in the last fourth of the book. And it feels like a lot of whiplash as all the action starts to barrel forth and almost in an out of control way. It then leads to a wrap up climax that almost felt too quick on top of all the REALLY fast things leading up to it. It doesn’t ruin the story by any means, it just makes it feel disjointed.

Uneven pacing aside, I thought that “Piñata” was a disturbing read with a lot of really good themes about colonization and the damage it has done and continues to do. Gout just devastated me out the gate and found the horrors within history and applied it to a modern story, and I really enjoyed it.

Rating 9: So many intense moments and such great commentary about the destruction that Colonialism brought to the Americas. While there are some pacing issues, overall “Piñata” is scary and mesmerizing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Piñata” is included on the Goodreads lists “Latinx Horror/Fantasy”, and “Men of Color Dark Fiction Writers”.

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