DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: The Garza family’s Christmas vacation in Mexico is cut short by the appearance of Pingo, one of the tzapame – Little People. The news is grim – a rogue prince from an ancient undersea kingdom is seeking the Shadow Stone, a device he will use to flood the world and wipe out humanity. Now Carol and Johnny must join a group of merfolk and travel into the deepest chasms of the Pacific Ocean to stop him and his monstrous army with their savage magic.
MY TWO CENTS: Picking up about six months after the first book, The Smoking Mirror,A Kingdom Beneath the Waves does a good job of re-immersing the reader into Carol and Johnny Garza’s world without overshadowing its own plot with too much background. One does need to have read the first book in the series for this second book to make sense, given that The Smoking Mirror provides much-needed background on the Mesoamerican mythological roots of this series’ worldbuilding. We start A Kingdom Beneath the Waves with the understanding that Carol and Johnny, the series’ twin protagonists, wield xoxal or savage magic, and that they are naguales, meaning they can shift into alternate forms: Their tonal—their animal spirit—being a wolf and a jaguar, respectively. Utilizing these powers, Carol and Johnny are enlisted into helping the underwater kingdom of Tapachco as it is being threatened by the fugitive prince, Maxaltic.
Carol and Johnny’s involvement in saving Tapachoc—and, by extension, the world—is complicated by their previous run-ins with the mythical world. Indeed, what makes this series so fascinating is that Carol and Johnny are not straightforward heroes, they grapple with tough subjects and their own faults as they learn to wield their burgeoning powers. Their choices have big consequences, but those choices still feel within the realm of these young protagonists, which makes this series relatable despite its fantasy elements.
Further, one of the things I find most intriguing about this series is how integral being Latinx is to the series and, yet, it’s not a series about race/racism or xenophobia (though those things are present)—rather, these are stories about young people demonstrating resilience and making tough decisions. Carol and Johnny’s struggles for good translate well for young readers, especially young Latinxs or other historically marginalized readers. What’s more, this book furthers representation by not only establishing Carol and Johnny’s own Indigenous heritages (by drawing a line between them and other twin naguales), but also introducing characters who are coded as Polynesian. This increase in representation in this series further reflects the diversity of our world and would resonate with young readers of all backgrounds.
As with the previous book, Bowles’s mastery of myth and history is impressive. While reading these books, I do have some trouble keeping track of character names, place names, and mythical creature names. While this doesn’t pull me out of the narrative, it may some readers. As with the first book in the series, Bowles provides an index at the end of the text that helps to briefly remind readers of characters’ names and so on.
All in all, I found A Kingdom Beneath the Waves to be a great addition to this series. It added more complexity to the world established in The Smoking Mirror and made me intrigued to keep reading the rest of the series. For readers who loved Percy Jackson or other fantasy series, The Garza Twin series is a must-read.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A Mexican-American author from deep South Texas, David Bowles is an assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Recipient of awards from the American Library Association, Texas Institute of Letters and Texas Associated Press, he has written a dozen or so books, including Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry, the critically acclaimed Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Mexican Myths, and They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems. In 2019, Penguin will publish The Chupacabras of the Rio Grande, co-written with Adam Gidwitz, and Tu Books will release his steampunk graphic novel Clockwork Curandera. His work has also appeared in multiple venues such as Journal of Children’s Literature, Rattle, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Nightmare, Asymptote, Translation Review, Metamorphoses, Huizache, Eye to the Telescope, and Southwestern American Literature. In April 2017, David was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters for his literary work.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is a lecturer in the English department at Sam Houston State University. She recently completed a Ph.D. in English with an emphasis on Latinx children’s literature. Her research explores the intersections between childhood activism and Latinx identities.
DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: One midsummer night. Two strangers. Three rules: No real names. No baggage. No phones. A whirlwind twenty-four-hour romance about discovering what it means to feel alive in the face of one of life’s greatest dangers: love.
Who would you be if you had one night to be anyone you want?
Volunteering in New Orleans was supposed to be a change, an escape from the total mess Julie left at home and from her brother’s losing battle with PTSD. But building houses surrounded by her super-clingy team leader and her way-too-chipper companions has Julie feeling more trapped than ever. And she’s had enough.
In a moment of daring, Julie runs away, straight into the glitter, costumes, and chaos of the Mid-Summer Mardi Gras parade—and instantly connects with Miles, an utterly irresistible musician with a captivating smile and a complicated story of his own. And for once, Julie isn’t looking back. Together Julie and Miles decide to forget their problems and live this one night in the here and now. Wandering the night, they dance on roofs, indulge in beignets, share secrets and ghost stories under the stars, and fall in love. But when a Category Two hurricane changes course and heads straight for NOLA, their adventure takes an unexpected turn. And, suddenly, pretending everything is fine is no longer an option.
MY TWO CENTS: Mia García’s debut novel, Even if the Sky Falls is a colorful, emotional book that grabbed me from the first page. Set in New Orleans, the reader feels transported to the French Quarter and Jackson Square as you follow Julie and Miles on their night of throwing caution to the wind. Both characters have intriguing backstories that I wanted more of. I found myself caring not only for Julie but also for her brother Adam, who you learn more about through the course of the novel. Miles seemed at first to be a Don Juan–slick, handsome, and a massive flirt, but throughout the novel, you discover he is much more complex.
Julie is a 16-year-old Puerto Rican girl who travels to New Orleans as part of a youth group trip to rebuild homes in New Orleans. She is doing so to get away from her family issues at home; her brother Adam recently returned from a tour of service and is not quite the same person he was before he left. While rebuilding homes, she sees a van filled with loud, happy people and decides that she is going to leave “Old Julie” behind and explore the city. She finds herself in the middle of Mid-Summer Mardi Gras, where she meets Miles, who is part of the Mid-Summer Boys band, whose music keeps Julie captivated. A New Orleans native, Miles knows the city and its history, so throughout the night, he shows Julie, who he calls Sunshine or Lila, the ins and outs of the “real” New Orleans. They agree to leave all baggage behind, just for one night. What they do not realize, however, is that they are about to fall hard for each other, and their pasts refuse to stay in the past. They also do not realize that a massive storm is heading straight their way, and it will change both of their lives. Both Julie and Miles have issues that they try to suppress, but it is not until the storm is upon them that they finally face what they have been running from.
In the beginning, I thought the storm was cliché, but it matches the character’s developments, especially with Julie and her refusal to share secrets about her past until they fully consume her. There are some religious aspects, mostly with her Abuela Julia, but it did not feel like García was beating me over the head with a Bible. It was also refreshing to have a Puerto Rican character whose heritage is referred to but not the central issue. At several points of the novel, Julie goes back to a time when she was in Puerto Rico on a trip or how her Abuela Julia helped to shape her into the person she is. I was gripping the book as I tried to figure out what the big moments were that both characters were running from, but García did not give them up easily. The big moment for each character hit me like a punch to the gut and made the characters more believable. Overall, the novel has a simple story structure: girl is unhappy with life, girl decides to be reckless, girl meets boy, they fall in love. But, García has given these characters so much depth and so much at stake that it is hard not to feel for them and want to cheer them on as they navigate both New Orleans during a storm and their pasts.
OTHER REVIEW QUOTES:
From School Library Journal: “The plot itself unravels like a hurricane, building and surging along with the storm. The story plateaus and tensions relax during the eye of the storm, but as quickly as the storm returns, so does the building action, which rages on until the final page.”
From Kirkus: “The author’s rich descriptions of New Orleans make the vibrant city come alive, from the music and ghost stories to the vampire lore and delicious beignets…A compelling 24-hour romance that’s as charged as its New Orleans setting.”
From Booklist: “García’s debut is a wrenching, high-stakes exploration of self-discovery. Readers of GayleForman, Sarah Dessen, and E. Lockhart will find themselves engaged by Julie’s quest.”
TEACHING TIPS: I would be somewhat hesitant to teach this in a class, only for some language usage, but I would definitely keep it in a classroom library so that students could check it out! If someone wanted to teach this book, I would definitely front load it with some information about New Orleans, its history, culture, and weather. It is key for the reader to understand the impact of Hurricane Katrina on this city. I was young when Katrina happened, but I know the repercussions are still felt on the city today. Also, I think it would be helpful for students to learn about what happens to soldiers after they come home from war, so they can better connect and sympathize with Adam.
For a guest post from the author, about the fear and stress of writing about her culture, click here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mia García was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She moved to New York, where she studied creative writing at the New School, worked in publishing, and now lives under a pile of to-be-read books. She’s a giant geek with comic book and archery addictions. Even if the Sky Falls is her debut novel. Her second novel, The Year of Everything, is expected to release in winter 2018. You can find her at www.mgarciabooks.com @MGarciaWrites on Twitter and Instagram, as well as on Tumblr at MGarciawrites.tumblr.com.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Troi Genders is a senior at Ball State University studying Secondary English Education. Troi is a self-proclaimed cat-mom, YA and Contemporary enthusiast, and lifelong learner. You can reach her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter at @MissGendersBSU.
DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: An eloquent and moving account of the tragic migrations of thousands upon thousands of children who are leaving their homes in Central America, often alone, to seek refuge in the United States. Why are they going and how does it feel to be one of them? What is this terrible trip like? What do their hopes and dreams for safety, a new life and a loving reception mean to them?
A refugee from El Salvador’s war in the eighties, Jorge Argueta was born to explain the distressing choice confronting young Central Americans today who are saying goodbye to everything they know because they fear for their lives.
This book is beautifully illustrated by master artist Alfonso Ruano.
MY TWO CENTS: Somos Como Las Nubes/ We are Like the Clouds is a moving collection of bilingual free verse poems. This is one of the few books that I have encountered about the heartbreaking experiences of children who leave their homes to embark on their journey to the United States. This collection of poetry begins with poetry depicting the experiences and sights of the children’s home countries. The poetry then shifts to the journey that children take to get to the United States. The author includes poems that describe the fears of traveling on La Bestia (a fast moving moving train that many migrants use to travel), discuss being accompanied by “coyotes,” and describe children’s feelings as they cross the deserts. I’ll share one of the most powerful poems about the journey titled “Las Chinamas”. The word Chinamas refers to the border between El Salvador and Guatemala.
When we crossed
the border at Las Chinamas
I saw the river Paz.
Its water runs smiling
between the rocks.
Here the cenzontles (mockingbirds)
never stop singing.
the gualcalchillas, (small songbirds)
and my teacher
I remembered my mother,
when I will see them again.
I look at the sky
we are like the clouds.
What I loved about this book is that there is message of hope in knowing that children are resilient, but the author does not hold back in depicting the heartbreak that goes along with leaving a home country. The book allows the reader to the experience the treacherous journey to the United States through the eyes and wonder of a child. The pictures in this book are also stunningly beautiful. The pictures depict the children’s home countries, families crossing borders, and children laying on the soft sand in the desert. The final poems in the book offer hope. In the poem “Fear,” a mother tells her child in his dream, “This is not a dream, you are in my arms.” The child has arrived to his destination in Los Angeles.
I shed tears when I read this book. It is heartbreaking and it is a poignant reminder that children are children and that there are difficult decisions that children should not have to make. In my opinion, what makes this book even more powerful is that it is written by Jorge Argueta. The author’s note at the beginning of the book shares Jorge’s own experience of fleeing El Salvador and coming to the United States. He shares his inspiration for writing the book by stating, “Like the clouds, our children come and go. Nothing and no one can stop them”.
TEACHING TIPS: This book is an invitation to learn about the harsh realities that children face when they leave their homes and embark on the difficult journey to the United States. It would be a great addition to any classroom library. It would be an excellent book to add to text sets about immigration or refugees. Teachers can also use this book to teach children about writing through difficult situations. It can also be used to show students how illustrations can enhance poetry as this book is beautifully illustrated.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:Jorge Tetl Argueta is a celebrated Salvadoran poet and writer whose bi-lingual children’s books have received numerous awards. His poetry has appeared in anthologies and textbooks. He won the America’s Book Award, among other awards for his first collection of poems for children, A Movie in My Pillow. He was the Gold Medal Award winner in the 2005 National Parenting Publications Awards (NAPPA) for Moony Luna/Luna, Lunita Lunera. His other works for children include Xochitl and the Flowers, 2003 America’s Award Commended Title, Trees are Hanging from the Sky, Zipitio, Talking with Mother Earth, The Little Hen in the City and The Fiesta of the Tortillas.
ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Alfonso Ruano was born in 1949 in Toledo, Spain. He studied painting at the School of Fine Arts in Madrid. He has published about 20 books for children and has received multiple awards for his work.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Sanjuana C. Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor of Literacy and Reading Education in the Elementary and Early Childhood Department at Kennesaw State University. Her research interests include the early literacy development of culturally and linguistically diverse students, early writing development, literacy development of students who are emergent bilinguals, and Latinx children’s literature. She has published in journals such as Journal of Language and Literacy Education, Language Arts, and Language Arts Journal of Michigan.
DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: To everyone who knows them, best friends Miel and Sam are as strange as they are inseparable. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrist, and rumors say that she spilled out of a water tower when she was five. Sam is known for the moons he paints and hangs in the trees, and for how little anyone knows about his life before he and his mother moved to town. But as odd as everyone considers Miel and Sam, even they stay away from the Bonner girls, four beautiful sisters rumored to be witches. Now they want the roses that grow from Miel’s skin, convinced that their scent can make anyone fall in love. And they’re willing to use every secret Miel has fought to protect to make sure she gives them up.
MY TWO CENTS:When the Moon Was Ours, captures a beautiful love story full of colors, scents, musical prose, and magical realism. Miel and Samir are peculiar children; Miel grows roses from her wrists and Sam paints moons and hangs them in trees around town. Anna-Marie McLemore’s rich narrative walks us through the lives of Miel and Sam, two teenagers with complicated histories. Miel’s fear of water, ghosts, pumpkins, and tormented memories of her mother, are intensified when the town’s rusted water tower falls and water rushes out over the fields and her. It is at this moment that she appears in the town, at the age of five, alone, in a thin nightgown, and bathed in rusted water. No one knows her or approaches her, except for Moon (Sam), who talks to her and covers her with his jacket. Miel goes home with Sam, but Aracely, the town’s curandera, offers to bring her home and look after her.
This town, like the novel, is full of mystery. There are four beautiful sisters, known as the Bonner sisters, who are thought to be witches. They usually get people to do what they want, and get boys to fall in love with them. They seemingly accept and care for Miel, but are manipulative and cruel to her when they think her flowers can help them get their powers back. The Bonner sisters are not free from gossip, envy, unexpected pregnancies, and secret sexual desires. The readers slowly begin to discover that what makes everyone mysterious—aside from the growing roses from Miel’s skin—is the world of secrets, half-truths, and distorted memories that each character holds. Hanging throughout the novel is the theme of gender fluidity. The story follows the blooming romance between Miel and Sam, who seem to tend to each other’s pains, desires, and bodily discoveries of unexpected peculiarities. Both Miel and Sam are foreign to the town, but it is Sam who is sometimes the target of discrimination because of the color of his skin and feminine features. Sam tells Miel the story his mother told him about bacha posh, a cultural practice in which families with no sons, dress a daughter as a son, and as an adult, the daughter returns to live as woman. Eventually, we discover how this tradition has impacted Sam’s life. Similarly, we learn about the connection between Sam’s life and Aracely, the town’s healer.
It is clear that the Bonner sisters are white, Miel is Latina, and Sam is Italian-Pakistani, and, although minimal, we can see how they experience life in this town. Las gringas bonitas, as Miel refers to them, are privileged and powerful, while Sam works the Bonner family’s fields. The theme of racial experiences or discrimination is not central to the novel, but it does point us to different lived experiences.
In the end, the novel is about acceptance and love. It is also about the complexity and danger of strict gender roles, and the freedom to live outside of that. For Sam, his assigned name and gender at birth did not match who he had become. The man he had become is the man who Miel loved. It is important to note the author’s personal story at the end of the book. Although she tells us at the beginning that this is a work of fiction, in the end, she explains her personal connection to Miel and Sam’s story. The author grew up listening to La Llorona stories, the weeping woman who, the legend tells, tried to drown her children by the river, and later learned about the story of the bacha posh, a cultural practice in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She also tells us about her marriage to a transgender male.
TEACHING TIPS: Teaching this novel opens up the opportunity to research different legends, traditions, and cultural practices in relation to gender plurality and sexuality. For example, recent stories from India and Mexico about cultures that have embraced a third gender have come to light. The author’s page offers several links on interviews, music, and essays written about transgender awareness. As a pre-reading activity, teachers can also hold discussions about legends like La Llorona, children’s folk ghost stories, and the differences and similarities between curanderos/healers and witches. Further research into McLemore’s use of colors, scents, and other sensory descriptions can open up discussions about culture, mood, place, and magical realism.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anna-Marie McLemore was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, raised in the same town as the world’s largest wisteria vine, and taught by her family to hear la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. She is a Lambda Literary Fellow, and her work has been featured by The Portland Review, Camara Oscura, and the Huntington—USC Institute on California and the West. Her debut novel The Weight of Feathers was a Junior Library Guild Selection, a YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults book, and a William C. Morris YA Debut Award Finalist. When the Moon Was Ours is her second novel.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Elena Foulis has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Arkansas. Her research and teaching interests include U.S. Latina/o literature, and Digital Oral History. She is currently working on a digital oral history collection about Latin@s in Ohio, which has been published as an eBook titled, Latin@ Stories Across Ohio. She currently lives in Cleveland, Ohio.
DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Carol and Johnny Garza are 12-year-old twins whose lives in a small Texas town are forever changed by their mother’s unexplained disappearance. Shipped off to relatives in Mexico by their grieving father, the twins learn that their mother is a nagual, a shapeshifter, and that they have inherited her powers. In order to rescue her, they will have to descend into the Aztec underworld and face the dangers that await them.
MY TWO CENTS: David Bowles’s Pura Belpré honor book, The Smoking Mirror, is a fast-paced, masterful journey through Aztec mythology and pre-Columbian Mexican history. Bowles, who was inspired to create a fantasy novel in the tradition of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson that featured a Latinx protagonist, weaves a captivating story of epic proportions, all framed by familial love. (For more from Bowles, see his guest post.) Moreover, though this is a diverse book with two Latinx protagonists, their Mexican heritage is important insofar as it provides the ethos for the setting of the text, but this is not a story about race or ethnicity and it is all the better for that. Bowles instead focuses on the supernatural elements of his source material and the hero journeys of his twin protagonists. The book is a quick read, full of page-turning action, which will intrigue even the most reluctant reader. Additionally, because it has both a male and female protagonist in twins Johnny and Carol, it should appeal to boys and girls. The Smoking Mirror, like many middle-grade books, has shorter chapters that maintain the pace of the narrative and keep readers constantly engaged without seeming overwhelming.
While Johnny and Carol’s journey through Mictlan is riveting, I was most captivated by Bowles’s exploration of their relationship, particularly of their twin connection. As a twin myself, I am always uncertain if an author will be able to capture the unique bond we feel, and Bowles does so in spades. This is not the tired good-twin/bad-twin nonsense that pervades literature and media. Bowles is sure to individualize both Johnny and Carol, and they are depicted as complex characters with strengths and flaws that set them apart from each other; in fact, their differences improve their relationship as the text unfolds. Johnny and Carol begin the story having grown apart following their mother’s mysterious disappearance. But when their father sends them to stay with their family in Monterrey, México, they must rely on each other in a new environment. When they both discover that they are naguales, or shapeshifters with special magic, their bond is cemented and they begin their journey to Mictlan to rescue their mother from Texcatlipoca, the god of destruction. Likewise, as naguales, Johnny and Carol share an intimate psychic connection, which they use to communicate telepathically. Their internal connection comes in handy as they journey through Mictlan, where they must constantly save each other. In these moments, they realize that their differences do not separate them, rather that they are complementary, and by the end of the text, Johnny even tells Carol, “‘you are my balance’” (198).
The backdrop for Johnny and Carol’s quest to save their mother is a richly populated mythological world full of terrifying creatures and powerful deities. By his own admission, Bowles mixes Aztec and Mayan mythologies to create his Mictlan. The result is an expansive, multilayered underworld that rivals Dante’s Inferno. Bowles, a scholar and professor at the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley, has also done translation work from multiple languages, including Nahuatl, the language spoken by many Mesoamerican indigenous peoples. It is obvious, then, that Bowles knows his source material. However, my only complaint with this text is the difficulty involved in keeping track of all of the Aztec- and Mayan-inspired beings that Johnny and Carol encounter, due to the similarity and/or complexity of their names. Because I’ve studied pre-Columbian, Central American literature (though certainly not as extensively as Bowles), I consider myself to be familiar with Aztec mythology/history; yet, I was confused in multiple places throughout the text. Bowles does include a thorough glossary and pronunciation guide, which I frequently needed to consult, but for a book that is so fast-paced, this disrupted the reading process. For the uninitiated reader, this could be a barrier to feeling fully immersed in the text.
Ultimately, I was riveted by Johnny and Carol’s impassioned search for their mother. Even when I was confused by the terminology, this book continued to be un-put-down-able. Bowles makes his characters feel real, and I became deeply invested in their story. From the snappy dialogue, infused with Spanish words and phrases, to the intricate world-building, Bowles keeps his reader’s attention from beginning to end. Now I’m itching to get my hands on A Kingdom Beneath the Waves, which was published in 2016, as well as the other three books in the series, forthcoming in 2017, 2019, and 2021.
TEACHING TIPS: Bowles’s website has a fairly extensive teaching guide for The Smoking Mirror, including information on his Aztec and Mayan source material. This information would be particularly relevant to a social studies or literature unit on mythology, as it broadens the scope of ancient mythologies beyond Greco-Roman perspectives. This book would also suit language arts lessons that explore the hero’s journey or other themes and images in canonical texts like The Odyssey. Students could compare the trajectory of the journey in both texts or examine the character types—hero, mentor, guardian, etc. This question becomes further complicated by Bowles’s twin protagonists: could both Johnny and Carol be the “hero” of the text? Why or why not? Or, for a more creative lesson, students familiar with mythology might be encouraged to create their own mythological world, drawing on preexisting myths and legends, just as Bowles does. Regardless, The Smoking Mirror is a valuable addition to any classroom or school library.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A product of an ethnically diverse family with Latino roots, David Bowles has lived most of his life in the Río Grande Valley of south Texas. A recipient of awards from the American Library Association, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the Texas Associated Press, he has written several books, most notably the Pura Belpré Honoree The Smoking Mirror. His work has also been published in venues such as BorderSenses, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Stupefying Stories, Asymptote, Translation Review, Huizache, Metamorphoses and Rattle.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is a doctoral student at Texas A&M University – Commerce. She received a M.A. in English with an emphasis in borderlands literature and culture from Texas A&M – Corpus Christi, and a B.A. in English with a minor in children’s literature from Longwood University in her home state of Virginia. Cris recently completed a Master’s thesis project on the construction of identity in Chicana young adult literature.
Reviewed by Cindy L. Rodriguez and Cecilia Cackley; ARC received from Sourcebooks Fire.
DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives.
Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange marks on his skin.
The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland…
OUR TWO CENTS: We’re thrilled to kick off our new blogging year with a celebration of Labyrinth Lost, an action-packed, urban, portal fantasy with a powerful, complex Latina main character. This novel tackles family, friendship, love, survival, and self-acceptance all while Alejandra Mortiz and her friends Nova and Rishi fight for their lives in a dangerous underworld.
Alex, a 16-year-old Ecuadorian-Puerto Rican, has been fighting against her magical powers for years, feeling her growing abilities are more of a burden than a blessing. She believes her magic is responsible for her father’s disappearance, and she fears more harm will come to herself and her family if she wholly embraces her magic during her Deathday ceremony. Alex, therefore, sabotages the ceremony, which causes her family to be kidnapped from their Brooklyn home to Los Lagos, where they may die at the hands of The Devourer, an evil, power-hungry bruja who’s happy to destroy anyone who gets in her way. The first few chapters really establish Alex’s character and her position in her family so that you understand and care about how conflicted and guilty she is about her family’s disappearance. The stakes could not be higher, and you want Alex to succeed.
Alex’s journey through Los Lagos feels very classic. The different communities she encounters, each with its own history and strengths and weaknesses, may remind readers of classic adventures like The Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno, and Alice in Wonderland. Every new area of Los Lagos brings a ton of action. Not every writer can create battle scenes so the reader can clearly visualize them without having to re-read. Zoraida is GREAT at this.
For those who like some romance with their action-adventure story, Labyrinth Lost delivers there as well. Alex has feelings for both Nova and Rishi throughout the narrative, making her one of the few bisexual Latinas in young adult fiction. We especially love that neither Alex’s bisexuality nor her bruja lifestyle are depicted as “issues” or morally problematic. Alex struggles to accept the responsibility and consequences of her magic and her place within her immediate family and the larger bruja community with its deep history and traditions. But, neither her cultural identities or sexual preferences are depicted as “the problems,” thank the Deos.
Labyrinth Lost, the first in a series, ends in a way that will leave you hungry for the sequel with promises of further family complications and more development of secondary characters, Nova and Rishi. We can’t wait!
compare/contrast inhabitants of Los Lagos with creatures from other folklore traditions and classical mythology
research Santeria and other traditions listed in the author note–which is amazing and a must-read
re-write a key scene from the point of view of Nova or Rishi
include this novel in a study of the supernatural, and witches specifically, in literature, along with titles such as MacBeth.
AND NOW FOR TONS OF AWESOME BONUS STUFF, including Chapter 1, the book trailer, and a giveaway!!
FIRST, you’ve got to see this:
NOW, you’ve got to read this:
Follow our voices, sister.
Tell us the secret of your death.
Book of Cantos
The second time I saw my dead aunt Rosaria, she was dancing.
Earlier that day, my mom had warned me, pressing a long, red fingernail on the tip of my nose, “Alejandra, don’t go downstairs when the Circle arrives.”
But I was seven and asked too many questions. Every Sunday, cars piled up in our driveway, down the street, and around the corner of our old, narrow house in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Mom’s Circle usually brought cellophane–wrapped dishes and jars of dirt and tubs of brackish water that made the Hudson River look clean. This time, they carried something more.
When my sisters started snoring, I threw off my covers and crept down the stairs. The floorboards were uneven and creaky, but I was good at not being seen. Fuzzy, yellow streetlight shone through our attic window and followed me down every flight until I reached the basement.
A soft hum made its way through the thin walls. I remember thinking I should listen to my mom’s warning and go back upstairs. But our house had been restless all week, and Lula, Rose, and I were shoved into the attic, out of the way while the grown–ups prepared the funeral. I wanted out. I wanted to see.
The night was moonless and cold one week after the Witch’s New Year, when Aunt Rosaria died of a sickness that made her skin yellow like hundred–year–old paper and her nails turn black as coal. We tried to make her beautiful again. My sisters and I spent all day weaving good luck charms from peonies, corn husks, and string—-one loop over, under, two loops over, under. Not even the morticians, the Magos de Muerte, could fix her once–lovely face.
Aunt Rosaria was dead. I was there when we mourned her. I was there when we buried her. Then, I watched my father and two others shoulder a dirty cloth bundle into the house, and I knew I couldn’t stay in bed, no matter what my mother said.
So I opened the basement door.
Red light bathed the steep stairs. I leaned my head toward the light, toward the beating sound of drums and sharp plucks of fat, nylon guitar strings.
A soft mew followed by whiskers against my arm made my heart jump to the back of my rib cage. I bit my tongue to stop the scream. It was just my cat, Miluna. She stared at me with her white, glowing eyes and hissed a warning, as if telling me to turn back. But Aunt Rosaria was my godmother, my family, my friend. And I wanted to see her again.
“Sh!” I brushed the cat’s head back.
Miluna nudged my leg, then ran away as the singing started.
I took my first step down, into the warm, red light. Raspy voices called out to our gods, the Deos, asking for blessings beyond the veil of our worlds. Their melody pulled me step by step until I was crouched at the bottom of the landing.
They were dancing.
Brujas and brujos were dressed in mourning white, their faces painted in the aspects of the dead, white clay and black coal to trace the bones. They danced in two circles—-the outer ring going clockwise, the inner counterclockwise—hands clasped tight, voices vibrating to the pulsing drums.
And in the middle was Aunt Rosaria.
Her body jerked upward. Her black hair pooled in the air like she was suspended in water. There was still dirt on her skin. The white skirt we buried her in billowed around her slender legs. Black smoke slithered out of her open mouth. It weaved in and out of the circle—-one loop over, under, two loops over, under. It tugged Aunt Rosaria higher and higher, matching the rhythm of the canto.
Then, the black smoke perked up and changed its target. It could smell me. I tried to backpedal, but the tiles were slick, and I slid toward the circle. My head smacked the tiles. Pain splintered my skull, and a broken scream lodged in my throat.
The music stopped. Heavy, tired breaths filled the silence of the pulsing red dark. The enchantment was broken. Aunt Rosaria’s reanimated corpse turned to me. Her body purged black smoke, lowering her back to the ground. Her ankles cracked where the bone was brittle, but still she took a step. Her dead eyes gaped at me. Her wrinkled mouth growled my name: Alejandra.
She took another step. Her ankle turned and broke at the joint, sending her flying forward. She landed on top of me. The rot of her skin filled my nose, and grave dirt fell into my eyes.
Tongues clucked against crooked teeth. The voices of the circle hissed, “What’s the girl doing out of bed?”
There was the scent of extinguished candles and melting wax. Decay and perfume oil smothered me until they pulled the body away.
My mother jerked me up by the ear, pulling me up two flights of stairs until I was back in my bed, the scream stuck in my throat like a stone.
“Never,” she said. “You hear me, Alejandra? Never break a Circle.”
I lay still. So still that after a while, she brushed my hair, thinking I had fallen asleep.
I wasn’t. How could I ever sleep again? Blood and rot and smoke and whispers filled my head.
“One day you’ll learn,” she whispered.
Then she went back down the street–lit stairs, down into the warm red light and to Aunt Rosaria’s body. My mother clapped her hands, drums beat, strings plucked, and she said, “Again.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Zoraida Córdova was born in Ecuador and raised in Queens, New York. She is the author of The Vicious Deep trilogy, the On the Verge series, and Labyrinth Lost. She loves black coffee, snark, and still believes in magic.