Review: Labyrinth Lost

When I decided I was only going to review books that I actually enjoyed reading, I didn’t really think about the reality of reading a book that was all right, but full of issues for me. Overall I give Labyrinth Lost a pass, but in the interest of honest reviewing there were aspects of the book that irritated me.


Alejandra Mortiz is a powerful bruja hiding her magic from her family. Her whole family are brujas and brujos, but Alex is convinced that their magic has brought them nothing but sorrow. When she can’t hide her magic anymore, she devises a spell to get rid of it – but everything goes wrong and her entire family, past and present, are sucked into another dimension ruled by an evil being who wants to consume their souls and gain their power for herself. Alex teams up with her best friend and a brujo with a dark past to get them back, traveling through Los Lagos, a land with beings and rules unlike anything we have on Earth.

The concept of Labyrinth Lost is powerful, and the dimension of Los Lagos is incredibly devised, full of fascinating landscapes and surprises at every turn. The strong point of the book is definitely the way Zoraida Cordóva plays with conceptions of afterlife and alternate dimensions, and paints the world that Alex, Nova and Rishi journey through on their quest.

However, I had my share of problems with Labyrinth Lost as well. First off, it reminded me a lot of the Hunger Games, particularly the arena from Catching Fire. In terms of setting this probably has more to do with my mind than the book, but I couldn’t shake the association. It didn’t help that both Labyrinth Lost and the Hunger Games trilogy are written in first person, present tense. That only strengthened my connection between them, and I wonder if Labyrinth Lost would have been a stronger book in a different tense and point of view. As I said above, I felt that the strongest part of the book was the world, and I loved the descriptions that we got. However, first person isn’t the greatest point of view for descriptive prose, as most humans don’t go into long descriptive paragraphs. The book reflected this and had some weak sentences that felt more like a sketch of the scene than a finished painting. For example, when describing a tunnel, Cordóva writes, “It smells dank and is lit by torches.” Sorry, but, well…duh.

The present tense also irritated me. When writing in present it’s a little too easy to rely on the filler words, especially ‘is.’ And Cordóva does this a lot. This is the very essence of a little thing, but hey, I’m a writer. I obsess over the little things.

Some reviewers have commented on weakness of character, and I can see their points. I think Alex is fairly strong, and Cordóva does a good job of avoiding the ‘invisible girl’ style that would essentially turn Alex into a thin sheet onto which we could just project ourselves. (Side note: she does fulfill the ‘reluctant savior’ trope in a way, with all her moaning about how she has all this cool magic and how terrible is that? There’s an explanation for why she hates it so, but I never really bought it. Maybe because every living human on earth would think her powers are the COOLEST FRICKING THING to have.)Alex has definite flaws, and both she and Nova are strong characters. Rishi is a bit weaker, unfortunately. She rings some of the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ bells, and another reviewer pointed out (quite rightly, I think) that she didn’t bring a lot to Alex’s quest, except for some romantic tension as she and Nova compete for Alex’s affections. I won’t say more in the interest of spoilers, but I did appreciate how the love story turned out.

At the end of the day, I would say Labyrinth Lost is worth the read. Yeah, I grumbled as I read it, but it’s a refreshing portal fantasy and gave us a beautiful world to roam.

This book is for you if: you want a new setting, you like creepy imagery.
Maybe less so if: You sweat the little things, you’re sick of first person, present tense.

Review: Crooked Kingdom



This review was supposed to come out a few days ago. Sadly it got gummed up in the gears of personal problems and the sort of despair that keeps a writer staring at her blank screen, doing nothing more productive than thinking, I really ought to be productive.

Leigh Bardugo is one of those authors that throws me into a cycle of elation and despair. I love reading her work; I hate comparing my work to hers. She has the sort of style and intricate plot that I’d love to be able to come up with but know in my heart I never can (This isn’t what stuck me on the review. It’s just a general observation). The first time I came across her work was a library copy of Six of Crows. Kaz and his crew convinced me that Bardugo is my new favorite author, and while I prefer the duology to her Grisha trilogy, I still lapped up the epic of Alina Starkov.

Crooked Kingdom picks up where Six of Crows left off – Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled off the most daring heist imaginable – and for their troubles they’re the most wanted crooks in Ketterdam, not to mention they’re missing a crew member. As the crew fights to stay one step ahead of their enemies, Kaz is busy working on the heist that could save them all.

I can’t go much more into detail than that, because it would spoil the book. Whereas the Grisha series had gaps between books, the Six of Crows duology fits seamlessly together. Crooked Kingdom has all the elements of a novel and can stand alone in its own right – emotional arcs, rising action, a classic plot. We go back into the heads of all our great friends and even get a shot at seeing the world from Wylan’s perspective.

I loved each of these characters more than the last. Bardugo creates compelling situations for our heroes to get caught in, and manages to weave political intrigue, action, violence, humor and romance into the novel. It’s hard to get people to care about all the points of view in a book like this, which I think is another testament to Bardugo’s ability. Her descriptions are also perfect – a blend of sensory description and triggered memories that give us a lot of information about the characters without making it all seem like an info dump.

I could probably go on about this book all day, but I won’t. I’ll go back to re-reading it instead. It’s that good.

You might like this book if you like: complicated plots, heists, high stakes, low fantasy.

You might not like this book if: Who wouldn’t like this book? Seriously? Okay, don’t read it without reading Six of Crows first.

Review: Shadowshaper


So, I met Daniel José Older in a discussion about writing, and his style was so down to earth I knew I had to read some of his work. I nabbed this one as soon as I spotted the cover.

Shadowshaper is the story of Sierra Santiago, a high school student looking forward to a summer hanging out with friends and painting murals. As soon as the summer starts, she’s swept up in a battle that nearly tore her family apart years ago, a battle that’s been kept from her all her life. A magical battle involving her art and her heritage.

Three words I would use to describe this novel and its heroine: Strong. Proud. Real.


Sierra is strong and not afraid to show it, and that shines in the prose even though it’s written from a 3rd person perspective (that’s not a knock, by the way. I loved that. I miss 3rd person so much in YA).

The plot was also strong. Older knows how to keep his novels lean and each scene served multiple purposes to develop all aspects of his story. The only thing I wasn’t so sure about in this novel was Sierra’s emotional arc. I guess she went from being unsure of her powers to being an accomplished user of them, but to be honest she’s already a pretty great and well-balanced character at the start of the book.


Sierra is proud of herself, her talents and her heritage. Shadowshaper brings Caribbean legends to New York City and stands with them, giving movement to both art and the dead. I am by no means an expert in Caribbean legends, folklore or culture, so coming at it as an outsider I can say that I enjoyed not just the magic that Older put together, but the way he stood by it. It’s not a creepy horror show act, it’s not whitewashed voodoo, it’s fresh and it’s proud to be what it is.

Speaking of proud, a lot of people have called Shadowshaper a kind of message-fiction. I’m going to be honest, I don’t really see a lot of ‘message’ in here when I look at Sierra’s emotional arc, because the message definitely isn’t, ‘It’s okay to not be white.’ Shadowshaper goes waaaaaaay beyond that. Race politics definitely play a role in the novel, as Sierra has to deal with people who are suspicious just because she’s got dark skin and a fro, not to mention stand up to her racist aunt. But the book isn’t about Sierra learning that her body is okay. From the beginning she’s a fan of her fro: “She loved it the way it was, free and undaunted.” She’s got complaints about her  body, but I’d like to meet the teen that doesn’t. Shadowshaper proudly paints a corner of the world where nobody’s white and nobody needs to be told that that’s okay. And I love that.


I’ve never been to New York. I’ve relied on my sister’s descriptions and the media to give me an impression of the city, and here’s what I’ve got:

-tall buildings
-Broadway shows
-Central Park
-homeless people
-black people in harlem, white people everywhere else.

Yeah, my sister really, really loves Broadway.

I’ve long known in theory that New York is an incredibly diverse place where people from every country in the world converge and bring pieces of their own culture with them. But that’s not the part of New York that we see in other urban fantasy or tv shows like How I Met Your Mother. Older brings us the part of New York that we know is there, but we tend to forget, just like he brings us the story of people we know are there, but tend to forget. We’re doing ourselves a disservice by not giving the places and people he describes more space in our public forums.

But back to technical developments. The writing feels real, the places feel real. The style Older uses is bare bones, which moves us from scene to scene with stark efficiency. I usually prefer a more lyrical style but Older definitely kept the pace up.

You will like this book if: you like urban fantasy, you like diverse casts, you like non-western magic systems, you like strong heroines.

You may not like this book if: you don’t like urban fantasy.

Review: Fangirl

Note: I like in-depth reviews, from the writerly side of things, and I like positive reviews. Therefore my reviews are lengthy, full of spoilers, and only of books that I love.

The Spoiler-Free Version

I’m not sure what initially turned me off reading Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell. A few Goodreads reviews claimed that it was ‘disparaging’ towards people who wrote fanfiction, and suggested that they were immature (I found zero evidence of this in the book). But it didn’t hold much interest for me until a friend working at a geek bookstore tried to get me to buy Carry On. “It’s so good,” she gushed. “It’s about…well, it’s super meta.”

I didn’t feel like reading Carry On first. But I figured I’d try Fangirl, because hey, reading. I was very nicely surprised.

Reading Fangirl was an experience similar to eating comfort food. It was never the wrong time to read it, it went down easily, and it gave me the warm fuzzies. I expect I connected with it better than some people might do – I grew up in Colorado, which has that same midwest feel, a mix of farm and city.

Fangirl follows the story of Cath, a shut-in twin just starting college. Cath’s twin Wren has performed the twin equivalent of a we-should-see-other-people breakup, and Cath isn’t sure how to navigate the real world without her. More than that, she doesn’t really want to. She’s got a massive online following thanks to her fanfiction epic, and she’d happily spend all day churning out chapters for them. However, a fun cast of characters is determined to pull her into life at her Nebraskan college.

A lot of Fangirl is episodic, so if you want a tight, racing plot, this may not be the book for you. But the book is incredibly strong in terms of craft. The description and dialogue were perfect for me, and every sentence was compelling. The characters were mostly fun to be with, and well-rounded. I related to a lot of Cath’s experiences as well, and I appreciate that we can get a different side to college life than a focus on parties or academia.

I would recommend Fangirl overall, and especially to people looking for a light read, a slightly (but not too) nerdy story, and a male love interest that doesn’t make you want to claw your eyes out or shout, ‘abuse!’

The Spoiler Version (You’ve Been Warned)

The Characters

Having just finished Fangirl (literally, I closed the book and then started this review), I’m a little muddled in this territory. I can’t figure out whether some of them were a little too tropey, or one-sided, or just the right amount of each.

Cather was sympathetic and funny, flawed and fun to read about. She was, of course, the most developed character, as the book was written in a close third person. I loved how much I could relate to Cath – I’ve had a lot of the same mentalities as her, and I’ve had some of the same experiences as her. I loved how she dealt with the various crises presented by the book, as they showed a character with both good and bad traits. I do feel that the ending came a little too easily to her, but we’ll cover that in the plot.

Levi was really great as Boyfriend Material. I am so sick of seeing these bad boys sauntering around, acting like the whole world pissed in their Cheerios and like women – or at least, the women they’re interested in – should be pushed around like chess pieces in their sick mind games. But Levi supported Cath in everything, worked to enjoy her interests, and sometimes pushed her to do better. At times Levi was too good, but for me that’s forgivable as we saw the book through Cath’s eyes, and they spent most of their time together in their honeymoon period.

Reagan was the ultimate Cool Roommate. I enjoyed her strengths, her prickly support of Cath, her brashness. She’s the type of character that’s good in small doses, and Rowell knew how to use her.

Wren was the most problematic character for me, as oftentimes it seemed she entered Cath’s life just to present her with a problem for the book to solve. Wren’s troubles ended up being about Cath and not about Wren. For example, she made the choice to pick up contact with their mother, but the book doesn’t directly show how that affects her. Later on she goes overboard on the party and drinking wagon, but that seems more like a vehicle to getting Cath and their mother in the same room together, and not a way to develop Wren on her own arc. She even corrects herself with what seems like little influence from Cath, and re-enters Cath’s life to make everything shining and beautiful again shortly thereafter.


The Writing

…was fun. I felt it had the perfect balance of description, action and dialogue, never got confusing on one end or bogged down on another. And most of all, it was compelling. I almost missed my train stop both going to and coming from work because I couldn’t stand to put the book away. And in case I don’t give a compelling enough case, the tattooed Viking squashed in next to me on the train was reading over my shoulder.

The Plot

…wandered a bit, in my opinion. I don’t have to have a strong plot thread, but I thought that Wren’s trip to the hospital would be the climax of the story, and then the denouement took another hundred pages. There wasn’t much conflict after that, and what was there felt a little shouldered in.

In a way, I didn’t need a strong climax or a quick pace. But I also felt like the ending wrapped things up a little too neatly. Cath falls more and more behind on Carry On, yet manages to make up with her family, finish her finals, and get the story done with no repercussions. She has an ongoing struggle with her writing professor, Piper, and the short story she’s supposed to write, yet she bangs out her ten thousand words in the middle of all this stress, after hating and hating the assignment. Not only does she presumably get her A, but her short story is selected for publication in the university’s magazine, which is supposedly a big honor. I loved virtually every part of Cath’s writing struggles and victories, but this one was a little too much for me. I guess I like keeping my endings a little bit messy.

I hope that at least some people got to the end of this post, and that you enjoyed it. All in all, Fangirl is probably one of those books that appeals to a specific audience, but boy is that audience me. I’m not sure how much I’ll like Carry On by comparison, but I’ll only find out by reading it, right?