City of Angels by Kristi Belcamino is an edgy, gritty, mature YA mystery about a young woman's struggle to not only belong—but survive.
One reason why I'm drawn to crime fiction is that it shows so-called “bad” people at their best and “good” people at their worst. That nuanced look at humanity and the forces out to corrupt it makes for some powerful, poignant, and pretty dark tales. You have to be an adult to fully appreciate and understand those types of stories though, right? You can't do a gritty, street level, crime story as a YA novel … can you?
It turns out you can. City of Angels, Kristi Belcamino's (author of the Gabriella Giovanni series) debut YA crime novel, proved I need to reevaluate my assumptions about YA novels' ability to tell gritty and powerful crime stories.
The book opens with a sordid, gripping prologue where the protagonist, teenager Veronica “Nikki” Black, introduces two of her friends: Sadie—a no-nonsense, gun-toting, ex-fashion model—and Danny.
His black eyes caught mine for a moment and he cackled loudly, his teeth gleaming in a Cheshire cat grin. I forced a small smile and turned away. Earlier, I'd found him in his room giggling and talking to himself, high on PCP or something. I hoped it wasn't one of those days he thought he could fly.
We first meet Nikki and her friends on April 30, 1992, as they've taken to the roof of the downtown L.A. hotel they live in to defend it from the wave of rioters who have descended upon the city. Belcamino then rewinds the narrative and takes us back to Nikki's early days in Los Angeles, where she suddenly discovers the real and horrific reason her “boyfriend” Chad helped her run away from Chicago to L.A.
He set his glass down and turned toward me, headed my way. He was going to hit me again. He was mumbling under his breath. “You've embarrassed me, baby. I think it's time to make you star in a movie you'll never have a chance to see.”
Belcamino immediately establishes the dark and dangerous underbelly of Los Angeles before allowing readers to get to know that world and the characters that live there a little better. Nikki makes for a pretty fascinating protagonist. Like some of the best crime-fiction heroes and heroines, she's a damaged person who's torn between survival and doing the right thing. Rain, a 12-year-old girl that Nikki meets early on in the book, is also a very human character. But it's the friends they meet at the place they come to call home, the American Hotel, that really steal the show.
In addition to Sadie and Danny, there's also aspiring musician Taj, his friend John, and John's girlfriend Evie. These eclectic characters, each dealing with their own personal demons, show Nikki something she's not used to seeing from adults: kindness. This group of strange, damaged, and fascinating outcasts begin as Nikki's friends and eventually turn into family.
Later, the bonds between Nikki and her chosen family are tested when Rain disappears into the L.A. underworld, and only Nikki believes she was taken. Desperate to find her, Nikki embarks upon an amateur but very believable investigation that makes her a target of dangerous individuals. Surprisingly, she's also greeted by moments of unexpected compassion.
My neck hairs tingled as the men watched me. When I was nearly to the wall, a man stepped out of the crowd. I braced as he approached, ready to kick and scratch, but when he got closer, a glimmer of kindness in his eyes confused and relaxed me a little.
He spoke in a quiet voice, “Young lady, you need to leave. Everything is different now because of Rodney King.”
The danger begins to escalate as Nikki starts to uncover the forces behind Rain's abduction, and like some of the best crime fiction, those forces possess a power and reach that make them seemingly unstoppable. Then, in one of the most exciting and interesting parts of the book, Nikki and her friends suddenly find themselves with one shot to get Rain back, as L.A. is turned upside down by the chaos and violence of the 1992 riots.
Setting the climax of City of Angels against the backdrop of the L.A. riots gives the book an added element of momentum and danger. It also provides some great payouts on earlier character investment. By the time the rioting breaks out, I was cheering on Nikki and her friends and gasping in horror when they were put in peril.
In City of Angels, Kristi Belcamino expertly proves that great crime fiction isn't just for adults. All you need is a cast of fascinating characters, a strong sense of place, and a suspenseful narrative that illustrates that darkness and humanity can be found in the most surprising places and people.
To learn more or order a copy, visit: