July 21, 2023

REVIEW Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa (Pilar Ramirez #1) by Julian Randall

Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa (Pilar Ramirez #1) by Julian Randall
Rating: 3 Stars
Release Date: March 1, 2022
Format: Audiobook (Borrowed from Library)
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co 

I love reading about the mythologies and stories of other cultures from around the world, so the opportunity to learn a bit more about the Dominican Republic in Julian Randall’s Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa was an opportunity too great to pass up. Amanda Alcantara’s narration in the audiobook brings the story to life with the main character Pilar determined to solve the mystery surrounding her family member’s disappearance during the reign of dictator Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.

As a fan of fantasy and mythology, worldbuilding is very important to me and Julian Randall did a good job with that. I enjoyed the Alice in Wonderland-type journey of Pilar falling into the parallel universe, and getting to see the different creatures straight out of folk stories. Zafa is a unique place, full of demons, witches, shapeshifters, and even a magical prison. The main villain, El Cuco, is essentially the boogeyman and it was interesting to see the differences between this version and other interpretations of the character (also known as ‘El Coco’ or ‘El Cucuy’). 

While the author brings some of the most prominent Dominican folktales to life, he also provides a social commentary on the state of affairs in the Dominican Republic in a way that is very easily understandable and appropriate for younger readers. I really appreciated the way the author handled those more serious topics, and as an adult, I was inspired to do some additional research about the Trujillo era (spoiler alert: it’s a very bloody time in history, and young readers should most definitely not look for the exact details). Pilar’s heritage comes into play with the sporadic use of Spanish words throughout the book; for the most part, I think everything was explained well but there were definitely some instances where there wasn’t enough context to determine what was being said or why it was being said. For example, the overuse of ‘pues’ to start sentences seemed a bit weird; almost like the author was trying to force more of a preteen slang vibe, and I could have done without it. 

Overall, this was an entertaining and fast-paced book. The ideal audience would be somewhere in the children to middle-grade age level. I enjoyed it as an adult, but I’m not sure every adult reader would be able to take something away from the read. If you’re the type of reader (or know a young reader) who enjoys books like J.C. Cervantes’ The Storm Runner, Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong, or who just wants an introduction to Dominican culture and myths, I think this would be a great choice. 

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