By Katy Goodwin-Bates
Here are some things that pretty much all young adult fantasy novels involve: a chosen one, destined for greatness but probably reluctant to fulfill that destiny; a helpful map, illustrating a topographically complex, politically divided land; a quest to save something, or find something, or prove something; assorted sidekicks, along for the ride largely to marvel at the unproven and unpredictable but astonishing abilities of the aforementioned chosen one. These tropes are helpful signifiers, repeatedly reiterating that, yes, you are reading a fantasy novel and so, no, you don’t have to be scared of that other key feature: a big bad monster with serious beef against the main character.
When we were children, they would scare us to sleep with stories of the maloscuros under the bed. But we aren’t like normal families. Our monsters are real. Sometimes we are the monsters.
In the initial chapters, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova seems to reject most of these YA fantasy tropes, opting instead to create an atmosphere that borders on gothic, with protagonist Alex witnessing the mourning ceremony for her Aunt Rosaria; the body jerks, black smoke weaves around her, and no reader can have any doubt that they’re in the presence of something supernatural. Córdova uses the opening chapters to establish Labyrinth Lost‘s specific brand of magic; Alex and her family are brujas, witches whose origins lie in Puerto Rico and Ecuador, currently residing in the very real environment of Brooklyn. Córdova takes elements of the real faith of brujeria, adding in plenty of original aspects which make Labyrinth Lost’s brand of magic something different from what can be seen in other YA fantasy novels. As the powers of each woman in Alex’s family become evident, it is the juxtaposition of the magic and the real which truly engage me. I’m quite partial to a bit of magical realism, and the incident in which Alex’s powers manifest themselves in the school gym exhibited the genre at its best, expertly combining the mundane with the mystical.
The problem is, inevitably, that Alex doesn’t want her magical abilities; no, for poor Alex, accidentally conjuring serpents from the mouths of high school bullies is a little too high profile, and, consequently, she contrives to reject her powers by sabotaging her Death Day. What’s a Death Day, I hear you cry? Well, I’m glad you asked. In her explanatory notes at the end of the book, Córdova rather gloriously describes it as, “a magical coming of age of my own creation. Like a bat mitzvah or a sweet sixteen, but for brujas and brujos.” I strongly feel like I’d like to read a whole book about that. Sadly for me, however, Alex’s attempt to ruin her own Death Day goes horribly wrong, resulting in her whole family, immediate and long-dead alike, being sent to another dimension, from which Alex and a mysterious brujo called Nova must rescue them, which involves, brilliantly, jumping into a tree trunk.
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 in every morning? Do they keep the index finger bones of their ancestors in red velvet pouches to ward off thieves?
I already know the answer is no. This is my world. Sometimes I wish it weren’t.
From this point, Labyrinth Lost moves in a different direction: more pure fantasy than magical realism. Suddenly, all the tropes mentioned earlier can be ticked off, which will satisfy the devoted reader of YA fantasy but disappointed me slightly, such had been my enjoyment of the real world-set chapters. Labyrinth Lost is certainly culturally unique; again borrowing from Córdova’s end-notes, Alex’s magic “is like Latin America – a combination of the old world and new,” and the richness of the author’s language really emphasizes this. The quest across Los Lagos, the dimension to which Alex’s family has been sent, is exciting, fast-paced, and varied, with a vast array of magical creations who need to be vanquished or negotiated with. It’s all executed with flair by Córdova. my only issue was that I’ve seen all this before, and had high hopes for the dizzying originality of the start to be sustained for the duration. To be fair to the book, I must point out that there are aspects of the plot and characterization that give Labyrinth Lost points for uniqueness, but to describe them at length would be to spoil the story; I’ll skirt around the issue (whilst simultaneously highlighting it) by saying that the book’s diversity isn’t merely cultural.
Labyrinth Lost is the first of a series, and ends with an appropriate balance of closure and cliffhanger. I’ll be eagerly anticipating more of Córdova’s brand of magical realism, as well as hoping for Alex’s family of fascinating women to feature more heavily, rather than being sidelined for the majority of the story. There’s definitely something fresh about this novel, in its colorful style and the way it borrows from cultural concepts unseen elsewhere in YA.
Labyrinth Lost will be available soon at GPL.