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.

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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: Shadowshaper

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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.

Strong

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.

Proud

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.

Real

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.