September 2021

The Last Cuentista

By Donna Barba Higuera
Review by
Light-years from home, Petra must use her love of storytelling to fight for the future of humanity in The Last Cuentista, Donna Barba Higuera's powerful science fiction tale.
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In the year 2061, Halley’s comet is on a crash course with Earth, and life on the planet is destined to end. Only three ships of colonists, including 12-year-old Petra Peña and some members of her family, have a chance at survival on another world. When Petra imagines her future on the distant planet Sagan, she dreams of becoming a storyteller like the grandmother she must leave behind on Earth.

When Petra wakes from suspended animation after almost four centuries of space travel, she learns that the colonists did successfully reach Sagan, but an extremist faction known as the Collective took over the ship while she slept. These descendants of the non-suspended colonists believe that peace can only be achieved when every human being is exactly the same; they even genetically alter their skin to be colorless and transparent. Petra is the only person left whose memories of Earth have not been erased by the Collective’s technology. She must use her wits and her stories to outsmart the Collective and fight for humanity’s legacy.

Petra’s love of storytelling forms the heart of The Last Cuentista. To communicate the sheer scope of what could be lost if the Collective succeeds, author Donna Barba Higuera references both traditional and contemporary tales, from the epic of “Gilgamesh” to Yuyi Morales’ 2018 picture book, Dreamers. Yet even as Petra seeks to protect the past, she doesn’t shy away from change. She often tweaks the stories she retells and reminisces on her grandmother’s own embellishments, beautifully demonstrating how even our oldest and most cherished stories continue to grow with us.

Particularly fitting for a novel about storytelling, the language Higuera employs is powerful and effective. The somber and sterile ship, the Collective members’ eerily transparent skin and the lush alien world of Sagan are all portrayed in transporting detail. Higuera establishes a tense mood early on and preserves that tension throughout, while still creating spaces in which she quietly explores Petra’s intense feelings of grief, hope and love. The contrast between these elements is balanced and complements the novel’s bittersweet narrative.

Readers will find in The Last Cuentista a promise that the past is not the enemy of the future, but a gift that grants the perspective to meet that future with compassion and bravery.

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The Last Cuentista

The Last Cuentista

By Donna Barba Higuera
Levine Querido
ISBN 9781646140893

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