Welcome back to the blog! I hope you all had a great Halloween and, if you’re American, that you’re somehow surviving the last dregs of this election season. To take my mind off the endless barrage of inescapable political ads on TV, I found a nice Halloween book to read. Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova is a fascinating coming-of-age story that’s based off of many different Latin American traditions, mythologies, and religions. The author is Ecuadorian-American, and to create the world of Labyrinth Lost, she mixed aspects of Mexican traditions like Day of the Dead, general Latin American traditions like the quinceañera, various aspects of religions like Catholicism and Santería, and her own Ecuadorian legends. Labyrinth Lost is filled with gods called the Deos, cantos rather than spells, and magic-users called brujas or brujos after the Spanish word for witch. However, what I found most interesting about the story was the idea that family and familial love was not only important but integral to the performance of magic.
Spoilers for Labyrinth Lost below.
Our protagonist, Alejandra Mortiz, comes from a long line of brujas and brujos. Unlike her family members, though, she has always been afraid of her magic, and when she shows signs of manifesting her powers, her family starts organizing her Deathday—a day when family members from all over come to welcome her into her new powers and give her their blessing. Since Alejandra has never wanted her powers, she comes up with her own canto to reject her powers and to ask the Deos to take them away from her. When her Deathday begins, she starts her canto, and instead of losing her powers, she ends up banishing every single one of her family members to a strange netherworld called Los Lagos. To rescue them, she and her nonmagical friend, Rishi, have to hire a mysterious brujo boy, Nova, as a guide and journey to Los Lagos themselves.
There are a lot of great things about Labyrinth Lost—the worldbuilding is vibrant and unique, the cast is almost entirely comprised of characters of color, and we even get a bisexual protagonist in a love triangle with a boy and a girl. But the backbone of the story is its focus on family. Alejandra fears her powers because she’s afraid that she’s inadvertently used them before to hurt her own family. Her aunt died under mysterious circumstances, she had to kill the family pet when it was possessed by a demon, and her father left the family shortly thereafter. But in Los Lagos, Alejandra can no longer ignore her powers—she has to use them to help herself, Nova, and Rishi survive. Her family, most of whom are brujos or brujas themselves, appear to her throughout the book to teach her how to use her magic. Alejandra’s older sister, Lula, tells her that in order to heal someone with magic, she has to feel a connection or a love for them. When Alejandra meets one of her ancestors’ spirits, she learns that the Deathday blessing isn’t just a fun ceremony—it actually makes a bruj@’s power stronger and easier to control, and bruj@s who don’t get a blessing from their family are at risk of destroying themselves the more they use their magic. Finally, when Alejandra faces off against Los Lagos’s big bad, a bruja called the Devourer, she uses not just her own magic but the magic of four hundred years of her family, channeled through herself, to defeat her. Alejandra learns that her previous rejection of her magic meant rejecting her family as well, because her family’s magic runs through her. She discovers that yes, there is magic in being a bruja, but there’s also magic that comes from being a girl in a community as well. Like in Shadowshaper, the connections of community and family inform and shape the magic of Labyrinth Lost.
However, Labyrinth Lost is not without its faults, the most important of which can be seen in the character of Nova. Nova doesn’t have a big loving family like Alejandra does—his parents died when he was young, and he spent years bouncing around the system and juvie before finally finding his grandmother. But he doesn’t particularly love or respect her, and it’s clear she doesn’t love him, because when she tries to bless him, it doesn’t take. Now every time Nova uses his powers, they leave black marks on his skin, and it’s implied that the marks will eventually kill him. Nova could have been a great foil to Alejandra—he’s what she could have been, had she continued to reject her family and familial traditions—but because we do learn about his family history, I’m left to conclude that it’s not really Nova’s fault as much as it is the system’s fault. Nova’s parents die because of addiction, which is a disease; he’s not placed in the greatest foster homes; and though we don’t get to meet his grandmother, what we hear about her isn’t good. Instead of seeing Nova as a cautionary tale for Alejandra, it reads as if the author has created a world where if you don’t have familial love, you can’t succeed at being a bruj@, which is pretty unfair to those who come from more disadvantaged family backgrounds.
Love and family together being the building blocks of magic is a unique and particularly Latinx take on magic, and it’s a theme that I don’t often see in new magical systems, which too often are bashing and clashing “how powerful can you get” -type affairs. Unfortunately, the only place where we really see this theme come to life is in Alejandra, who is the only one to really learn and embody the importance of familial love. The novel could really have benefited from fleshing out characters like Nova and even the Devourer, who was a bruja banished to Los Lagos long before the story began and whose stealing of other bruj@s’ powers played a major hand in her own destruction. Labyrinth Lost doesn’t account for bonds between people in my favorite trope, found families, and doesn’t acknowledge that people who aren’t your blood relations can teach you things, love you, and form a community with you as well. Nova could have been accepted into Alejandra’s family, or created a bond between himself, Alejandra, and Rishi, or even connected with his ancestors’ spirits in an effort to learn about his own family, and for a novel so founded on the idea that family is integral to the success of your magical ability, it was extremely frustrating that none of this happened for him. Fortunately, Labyrinth Lost is the first in a series, and the next book will be out next year! So there’s plenty of time to hopefully strengthen its message in this regard in the future.