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The Penalty

Review

The Penalty

Fourteen-year-old Ricardo Gomes de Barros is an orphan devoted to the game of soccer. Called “Rico” by his aunt and sister, he lives in squalor in the countryside surrounding San Juan and practices the sport “in a field of uneven ground where a church once stood.” Because of the magical way he handles the ball and plays the game, other soccer players have given him the name “El Brujito” --- the Little Magician.

When Rico practices and then plays, his head is “full of spirits with whom he talks and in whom he confides.” He listens to the voice of Achache, his spirit ancestor. It is from Achache, the Magician and Dancer, that Rico believes he derives his skills. Rico also knows that behind Achache stands Maco, the Judge, who has even greater powers. He believes that Maco can separate him from his soul and turn him into a ghost, and fears that “if Maco judges you offside, there is no appeal.”

After becoming a famous player, Rico misses an easy penalty kick during a crucial game. Afterwards he seems uncharacteristically distracted, and it's not just because of his missed goal. Rico walks out of the stadium and disappears without a trace. For a time, his disappearance becomes front-page news and the topic of great speculation. Has he been kidnapped? Has he been killed? Is he still alive? No one seems to know, and the mystery of the missing soccer star remains unsolved. Eventually the local media and the police lose interest.

Then, while on vacation in San Juan, South America’s star sports reporter, Paul Faustino, is drawn into the young athlete’s disappearance. After Faustino questions Maximo Salez, a reporter who covered the El Brujito story when it first broke, Salez turns up murdered in a gruesome manner. Faustino’s curiosity about the boy’s disappearance and his desire to get to the bottom of the murder of Salez lead him down strange and dangerous paths, where he uncovers dark truths about corruption, the history of slavery and the occult.

THE PENALTY is a haunting tale that weaves events from the past and the present to reveal how poverty, greed and superstitious beliefs can control --- and destroy --- lives. The graphic descriptions of torture and murder make this story unsuitable for younger teens, but it is one that older readers with a taste for the exotic should enjoy.

Reviewed by Donna Volkenannt on August 14, 2007

The Penalty
by Mal Peet

  • Publication Date: November 8, 2016
  • Genres: Thriller
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Candlewick
  • ISBN-10: 0763687472
  • ISBN-13: 9780763687472