“I wonder what it’s like in other households during breakfast. Do their condiment shelves share space with jars of consecrated cemetery dirt and blue chicken feet? Do their mothers pray to ancient gods before they leave for work every morning? Do they keep the index finger bones of their ancestors in red velvet pouches to ward off thieves?”
Alejandra is a Latin-American witch, also known as a bruja; but she hates and fears her powers. When she determines to reject her powers and heritage, her attempt backfires in a big way, and she must journey to the underworld, Los Lagos, to redeem herself. Will be published Sept. 6th, 2016.
What I Liked :
(1) Labyrinth Lost begins well, setting the scene in a house full of Brooklyn “brujas,” with creepy descriptions of what it means to be a Latin-American witch. The unique, Latin-flavored details are the main reason I wanted to read Labyrinth Lost in the first place. (2) Zoraida Cordova’s lyrical, original prose covers more than just the Latin-American world of the brujas: it also portrays Alex’s personal life, before the plot starts rolling. Alex struggles with a realistically painful and frightening magical “coming of age,” but she also enjoys a fun relationship with her siblings—equal parts love and snark. When they joke about reincarnation:
“What did I do in my last life to deserve you two?” “You were a pirate queen who stole a treasure from Cortes and then ended up deserting your crew to man-hungry sharks.”
So despite a few clunky plot points, early on, and the brat of a narrator (Alex is overly aggressive with everyone except Rishi, her bisexual love interest, with whom she softens almost to the point of sentimental silliness), I flew through the first half and noted, with rising hope, the unique descriptions of the secondary world that Alex enters through a portal.
“It startles me when I look at both ends of the horizon. The moon and the sun are out at the same time. On one end, the sun is a white circle hidden behind the overcast sky. On the other side of the horizon is a sideways, slender crescent moon, the points facing up. Something swells inside of me, a faded memory of bedtime stories about them reaching across the sky to join together—La Mama and El Papa.”
(1) Unfortunately, it becomes clear around the 50% mark that Rishi was only included in this story for her sexual orientation; she has no plot purpose. [Highlight to view spoiler: She and Alex feel like good friends, but the bisexual relationship feels completely forced, as if the author only included it to make the book sell.] Not only does Rishi have no meaningful character arc, I can’t think of one thing she does to influence the plot. Ultimately, many readers looking for a good LGBT fantasy were disappointed (if Goodreads is any indication).
(2) The worldbuilding does not continue to deepen. Although the book’s Latin-American pantheon is full of uniquely named gods and goddesses, the deities end up blending together without much distinction or mythology. None is particularly fleshed out. Occasionally, a character shares a great story about one of the gods, but only very occasionally.
(3) Alex and Rishi are irritatingly ambivalent about Los Lagos and its gods, throughout most of the story. Rishi, in particular, acts like they’re traveling through Candyland, not Hell. She’s constantly like, “OH SHINY THINGS EVERYWHERE LET ME TOUCH THEM!” And Alex and Nova are like “STOP TOUCHING THAT YOU DARLING STUPID MAGPIE!” Literally, Alex constantly calls Rishi things like “my little magpie.” It makes the book feel more MG than YA. Behavior like this also deescalated the tension, for me, because if they’re not wary, why should I be?
Nova is the only character with any sense or passion about his religion. Here he defends his beliefs to the teen girls:
“Nova sounds frustrated as he says, ‘I can’t explain belief. I just have it. I know the power in me comes from somewhere. I know that the magic in my veins is real. No, I can’t tell you that if I speak to the Deos, they answer back with words, but there are other ways. When was the last time Zeus came down from Olympus and hung out just to prove his existence?”
(4) The magic system retains similar problems to the pantheon. While it is beautifully developed in language and atmosphere, it’s totally underdeveloped as a tool. Alex draws on physical energy to use her magic and no one ever defines her magical boundaries. So basically…Alex can do anything; that knowledge sucks the tension from the action sequences and the climax.
Labyrinth Lost is unique among YA Fantasy, although its worldbuilding won’t satisfy longtime readers of Fantasy. It sidesteps some of its own questions (such as, “If at least some of the Latin religious myths are true, what about Rishi’s Guyanese religion?”); the tension is destroyed by a cardboard villain and unlimited deus ex machina magic; and the contrived bisexual relationship seems to have been included only as a selling point.
Still, the merits of the book stand. The unique Latin-American feel of this novel earns it 1.5 stars. I also generally liked the sentence-level craft of the book, which earns it a half star. And the twist at the 80ish% mark gives it another half star.
If the premise gives you a burning desire to read the book, as it did me, you may find something to like, here.
My thanks to Zoraida Cordova, Sourcebooks Fire and Netgalley for my review copy of Labyrinth Lost.