The Library Coven: Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova
The first installment of the Brooklyn Brujas trilogy transports readers to a reimagined contemporary world full of magic, where we meet Alex Mortiz, an Encantrix (basically a super-bruja) who attempts to rid herself of her powers on her Death Day. When the ritual goes awry and the entire Mortiz family is imprisoned in the purgatorial realm of Los Lagos, Alex teams up with bad-boy Nova and friend Rishi for a rescue mission. Chaos, love triangle and betrayal ensue!
The world building in Labyrinth Lost hinges upon the juxtaposition of contemporary (albeit magical) Brooklyn and Los Lagos, a liminal space exclusively inhabited by magical beings—everything from adas (faeries) and avianas (harpies) to giants, imps, and duendes (trolls). The Mortiz family is trapped inside the Tree of Souls, which we find in the middle of Los Lagos at the center of a labyrinth. The image recalls the world tree, a trope that appears not only in the stories of Maya, Aztec, Itzapan, Mixtec and Olmec cultures, all of which are indigenous to Abya Yala (so-called Central and South America) but also features in Baltic, Persian, Norse, Greek and Roman mythologies as well as Abrahamic religious traditions. The world tree is an axis mundi, a point that connects earthly and divine planes.
Glorious Spanglish is everywhere throughout the novel, providing a linguistic pillar to the worldbuilding—from characters using small amounts of Spanish in their conversations to place names like Mar del Fin, Bone Valle, Wastelands del Este, and Selva of Ashes. At times Córdova even includes phonetic pronunciations in Alex’s exposition. Readers who know little (or no) Spanish may not catch onto the wordplay, but those who do minimal research will be rewarded with a deeper understanding of the novel.
“Spells are for witches. Brujas do cantos”
Córdova constructs a pantheon of Deos to form a polytheistic magical system. Leading the ranks are La Mama and El Papa along with El Fuego and numerous other gods with elemental powers corresponding to their names (e.g., El Cielo, La Ola, La Estrella). Brujos, brujas and brujexes act as vessels for the powers of the Deos. As Alex explains, “magic is a living thing. It’s part of me. I summon it, call it like a snake charmer called the snake out of its slumber. The magic answers back” (297). Ritual is necessary to wield magic, and cantos (incantations) have specific ingredients and instructions. Moreover, magical knowledge is communal and collaboratively produced throughout time and space. This manifests in the form of the Book of Cantos, a compendium of spells, prayers, poems and potions that also includes folklore and diary entries penned by the Mortiz ancestors. Taking inspiration from Santería and Voodoo, Córdova includes human blood and nonhuman animal sacrifice in the magical system, a relative rarity in the genre’s contemporary publishing landscape.
As is the case with most YA fantasy narrated in the first person, Labyrinth Lost readers undertake a journey alongside the protagonist who is learning about magic and accepting their powers. Alex’s beef with magic is that it brings her family pain, loneliness, and death. At the beginning, when she’s suppressing her powers, Alex has panic attacks and withdraws, which has physical repercussions. Conversely, at the end of Labyrinth Lost Rishi describes how Alex glows after she has accepted her magic. Alex taps into her emotions to call on her magical abilities, especially anger and love, and the significance of the phrase “magic has a price” (emblazoned on the cover) cannot be overstated. Without an ancestral blessing of the Death Day ritual, Nova suffers more from using his magic. Magical “recoil” manifests as psychosomatic pain and physical injury whenever a person uses magic, regardless of whether the intentions are “good” or “evil.”
One Does Not Simply
Refreshingly, there are no white people in this book except for the villains. Córdova takes care to highlight the Black/African part of Latinidad more generally, which is a crucial decision since cultural discourse is rife with colorism and erasure. For example, Alex’s great-grandmother Mama Juanita is “dark as night.” Ale traces the process of colonization through her heritage: “My mother’s family were run out of their lands in Spain and fled to and fled to Mexico. My dad’s ancestors were African slaves in Ecuador. They went to Panama and then Puerto Rico. Somehow my blood comes from all over the world and settled in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is my home” (187).
We have queer protagonists in Labyrinth Lost, as is becoming increasingly common in mainstream YA fiction. Thankfully the novel doesn’t harp on Alex’s sexuality as a problem that needs to be solved. Instead of worrying about labels, the protagonist just feels her feelings. In this way the novel normalizes queer desire. Unfortunately, there is some ableist language in this book: Nova’s eyes kept being described as “bipolar” because they change color and “crazy” is used repeatedly as an insult.
Nova in particular is a character that demands intersectional analysis. Nova is a survivor of violent and interrelated systems from foster care to the carceral state. It’s true that Alex’s mom is struggling to provide for her family, but Nova is dealing with even greater precarity since he experiences homelessness and hunger. In a way, Nova makes Alex confront her sites of privilege. As the novel’s only fleshed out example of masculinity, Nova is emotionally unavailable and seemingly aligns with what white people see as villainous (POC, tattooed, formerly incarcerated). While we see a pretty classic conflict trope in Nova—the Faustian bargain with the devil—his back story is heartbreaking and reminds us that when the system gets in the way, it sets people up to fail and/or make choices out of desperation.
The Devourer as Metaphor
We posit that you can interpret the villain, known as The Devourer, as a compelling metaphor for a white supremacist colonial takeover and resource extraction. The Devourer’s hunger for power and domination is insatiable, and she consumes whatever energy she wants. Readers get the sense that the Devourer will simply move on to the next realm when she’s exhausted all the resources from Los Lagos. Another aspect of the Devourer’s extended metaphor for colonialism is the fact that this trauma is inflicted over generations. The novel laments how entire generations of beings will never know what it’s like to freely exist in their homelands. Labyrinth Lost recalls the legacy of struggle of indigenous peoples fighting for the land, first with the avianas and then with the adas.
When we unpack The Devourer metaphor, the genocidal legacy of white supremacist colonialism is laid bare. We consider this an invitation to look to indigenous land defenders and water protectors who have always been fighting (see Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States and Dina Gilio-Whitaker’s As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock for panoramic views of the issue).
It’s urgent for settlers and arrivants alike to take up the work of decolonization… non-metaphorically #LandBack Native-land.ca is a starting point for learning whose land you’re on, but it is an empty gesture if unaccompanied by action. To learn how to begin/continue, the following resources can help:
- Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1-40. (full text)
- Matika Wilbur and Adrienne Keene. “ThanksTaking orThanksGiving?” All My Relations. Podcast Episode Audio and Show Notes. 20 November 2020.
Kelly J. Drumright (she/they) is an educator, writer, and media-maker living on occupied Cheyenne, Ute, and Arapaho lands (Boulder County, CO). In a past life, she earned a PhD in Iberian and Latin American Literature. Kelly’s research combines decolonial, feminist, queer, and affect theories to examine the relationships between humans, other-than-human beings, and technology in cultural discourse. In addition to co-producing The Library Coven, Kelly is a bilingual Spanish-English interpreter/translator agitating for migrant justice from home isolation. You can find them on twitter @kdrumleft.
This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in September 2020 from a pitch sent to the editor via Twitter. The author and editor are mutual acquaintances through shared scholarly and genre fiction review networks. No review copy was arranged by ARB.