(Yes, I drank all my tea… again. Sometimes it’s just too good to leave unconsumed until the photo op.)
You have to understand how excited I was to read this book. Latin American characters and culture and magic, mixed with some fictional but Latin American-based mythology, folk tale, and ritual – Labyrinth Lost was going to be something different. In a YA urban fantasy/paranormal market flushed with average Anglo-American stories, with roughly the same situation over and over and over, this was going to be new and untapped (though hopefully not untapped for long).
And I fully acknowledge that I’m not in the majority with my opinions. A lot of people on Goodreads love this book. Five and four stars are the norm there. And I guess in a way I’m glad. I wanted this book to succeed.
Unfortunately, to me, it wasn’t new or different. It’s great that almost the entire cast is Latin American, and I guess it’s good that some attempt at LGBT relationships is made, but, in all the deepest storytelling places, Labyrinth Lost is just another one of the same mediocre stories we’ve been getting in the YA supernatural market for ages.
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 markings 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…
The book starts out fairly strong. The normal, everyday culture of the brujas/brujos is fun to read about; the conflict between modern life and magic is almost always an interesting situation. It’s a little overdone, sure, but there’s room for exploration. This aspect of the conflict was, I think, the most compelling thing about Labyrinth Lost – that, and the family dynamic. Alex lives with her mother and two sisters, and their notable circle includes several other brujas, both living and dead. While Córdova’s treatment of it is not particularly groundbreaking, it still worked well enough.
But the book loses those two elements – family and clash of modern life/magic – at page 81. (Yes, I went back to check.) Less than a third of the book takes place in a relatively well-defined world with characters we (at least start to) care about. Then Alex and Nova go to Los Lagos, and the book falls apart.
I wrote in my preliminary Goodreads review that Labyrinth reads like it’s being smothered by a pillow. The life just goes out of it. Alex is always distant and frequently melodramatic – not a great combination. I wanted to get where she was coming from, but her narration was too unclear and her motivations didn’t have enough context to be believable. Everything supernatural that happens to her in Los Lagos is related in bare, vague detail, with no emotional inflection. It’s like Alex feels nothing; she just flat-out says that she feels what she’s supposed to feel in various situations. Her magic is strongly tied to her emotions, but those emotions are never actually shown coming from an understandable place.
The same holds true for her relationships. Nova is nothing but cliché, the bad boy with an awful backstory, literally too sexy for his shirt (he spends a substantial portion of their time in Los Lagos shirtless). His lines feel copy-pasted from every single YA paranormal story you’ve ever read, and so does his dialogue with Alex. He and Alex don’t really have an organic relationship; he’s there because the story requires she have a sexy brooding bad boy as a “guide” (aka: an edgy love interest). Rishi, Alex’s best friend and eventual third part to the love triangle, started out promising, in a “Manic Pixie Dream Bestie” kind of way (galaxy leggings are basically shorthand for that character), but she eventually turns into a line-mouthing puppet, too. There was barely any chemistry when Alex and Rishi were friends, but any trace of chemistry vanishes when the relationship turns romantic. Ugh. She also gets a bizarrely random feud with Nova going – truly childish jealousy over Alex – which repeatedly had me putting the book down just to mutter, “What are you, like twelve?”
That’d all be well and disappointing, but the most tragic thing is that even the novel’s mythology can’t stand up on its own. Los Lagos is vague and hazy, with only the barest of description (thanks to Alex’s apparent sensory coma). Most of the fantastical elements are fictional, and since we get almost no discussion of Los Lagos before Alex and Nova go to Los Lagos, we are even more in the dark than they are about what to expect. And no one ever sits down to explain. Exposition is a bad thing, of course – no one wants an “As You Know, Bob” moment – but being shoved into a brand new mythological situation blind is equally frustrating. Avianas? An important Alta Bruja no one mentioned until the middle of the book? A Faun King? Okay, sure, whatever, I guess; we weren’t told it couldn’t happen, anyway. Every minor obstacle in Los Lagos materializes out of nowhere. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, but Alex simultaneously shows very little surprise at those obstacles while demonstrating almost no foreknowledge that they might exist. It’s like if Percy Jackson encountered the minotaur without knowing that minotaurs existed, and his reaction was, “Dude with a bull head? I mean, no one told me I wouldn’t meet a dude with a bull head, so I guess I’ll fight it.”
All around, Labyrinth Lost is a cloudy, confusing, vague situation, both character-wise and setting-wise. Also, if you’re like me and have issues with animal sacrifice, you should be warned: there’s animal sacrifice. Shudder.
This review was overlong a couple hundred words ago, so I’ll stop here. In brief, it’s a “do not recommend.” Guess I’m still waiting for that one perfect magical Latin American novel to do the genre justice.