The Library Coven: Bruja Born by Zoraida Córdova
Review adapted from from The Library Coven, episode 38, published 6 October 2020
The second book in Zoraida Córdova’s Brooklyn Brujas series takes place six months after the events of the first novel, Labyrinth Lost. After a fatal accident that upends not only her life but that of the entire community, Lula, the eldest Mortiz sister, betrays the goddess of Death by accidentally creating a horde of zombie-like creatures called casimuertos (meaning “almost-deads” in Spanish). In the process, Lula traps Lady de la Muerte between realms, thereby upsetting the balance of the whole universe and prompting the Mortiz family to ally with some new characters to try and make things right.
Bruja Born is the only urban fantasy tale in the trilogy, and as a reader it is a delight to experience Córdova flex her world building muscles on a smaller scale within Brooklyn itself. The map at the beginning reimagines el Brooklyn de las brujas with local landmarks and place names, a paratextual detail often missing from urban fantasies because it is assumed that the fictional version of the world precisely mirrors the extra-diegetic one. One of the most memorable of these fictional places is the bakery Nova’s Grandmother runs. The cozy space is full of aromatic breads and pastries juxtaposed alongside poisonous tinctures. It is a treat to witness the everyday family interactions that we did not see in the first book (understandably, since the whole Mortiz family sans Alex was trapped in a tree in another realm). Córdova does an excellent job weaving exposition into Lula’s narrative voice. Jessie and I were glad for the small amount of recap at the novel’s outset because, honestly, it’s necessary for voracious readers who travel between different magical worlds.
In our last post, about Labyrinth Lost, we started unpacking the thoroughly developed magical system that includes a pantheon of gods, incantations, blood magic and recoil. Things get more complicated in Bruja Born as readers are exposed to new fantastic beings (e.g., shapeshifters, vampires) and kinds of magic. But it is the introduction of two secret organizations—the Thorne Hill Alliance and the Knights of Lavant—that expose the underlying power dynamics of the magical world to the young protagonists. Ominously dubbed “the hunters,” the Knights of Lavant function similarly to the Men in Black, so like a magical police force trying to make sure that the sinmagos (the term for non-magical people in the Brooklyn Brujas lexicon) don’t discover all the supernatural shenanigans. Such a massive operation requires keeping tabs on magical folx, which is where the Thorne Hill Alliance comes in, with their surveillance system of the Tristate area and teams of professionals ready to clean up any unseemly incidents of a magical nature. All of these elements woven into Bruja Born allow ample space for discussions of carceral systems and logics, technology, and surveillance.
Nova and the Meaning of Family and Home
Córdova forces readers to confront the intersection of race/class/gender via Nova’s character, who is unhoused and living on the streets when the novel starts. Neither the Mortiz sisters nor the readers know much about Nova’s family situation except that his grandmother kicked him out and he hasn’t had a death day ceremony (meaning the recoil of using his magic is killing him). The novel follows the web of complex kin relationships as they develop. Nova’s grandmother asks Lula and Alex to tell Nova she’s ready to reconcile whenever he decides. Instead, the Mortiz family embraces Nova, bringing him into their home and organizing a death day ceremony for him. In Córdova’s hands, the chosen family trope feels fresh. Jessie and I have our fingers crossed for a book about Nova! ❤
Women and Femmes, Gender and Sexuality
Even though one of Lula’s core motivations (at first) is to save her boyfriend Maks, none of the Brooklyn Brujas novels focus exclusively on romance. Rather, queer and young love are normalized as facets of a wider lived experience. Córdova seems more interested in exploring other components of gender and sexuality as they pertain to women of color. For instance, within the first few pages of the book Lula is described as being sexualized from an early age (a component of adultification bias): “I’ve been aware of the women’s eyes on my legs since I was far too young, the way boys in school stared when they spoke to me, the way they offered me gifts” (Bruja Born 6). When I (Kelly) brought this up on our show, Jessie said,
[This was] definitely something that didn’t even stick out to me, because I was like, oh, yeah, that’s just normal. This happens particularly within Black and Brown communities. Aging us up and sexualizing us and holding us to a higher standard.
Jessie also recommends Elizabeth Acevedo’s novel in verse The Poet X for another text that explores this topic. On a related note, Lula, along with the side character Mayri, let us discuss how women and femmes internalize white supremacist and patriarchal beauty standards. Mayri hides her acne with magic, while Lula gets messages and magical assistance to cover her scars. It is a relief when both of these characters eventually reject their previous attempts to “pass” as normatively beautiful according to the reductive paradigm of ableist/cis/hetero/racist/patriarchal aesthetic expectations.
Dis/ability, Grief and Trauma
Lula’s trauma and its aftereffects also contribute to her isolation. Having been attacked by otherworldly creatures in Labyrinth Lost takes a toll on Lula and Mak’s relationship early in Bruja Born. Since Maks is a sinmago, Lula cannot tell him the truth and instead fabricates that she’s shaken up from a break-in at her house. Maks tells Lula that she’s not the “same person” since “her fire has gone out” (*eye roll*). After the bus crash, Lula’s bodymind keeps deteriorating because she’s connected to all the casimuertos in a kind of host-parasite relationship. To make matters worse, Lula’s brujo/a/x friends pathologize her for taking so long to grieve and recuperate.
Fortunately, Lula is aware that her friends are simply centering their own comfort, wanting her to feel better and be better without giving her the time or the space to do so—this blatant display abled fragility is something that disabled and chronically ill people regularly confront (ourselves included). Sentiments like “get well soon” are not as comforting as people like to think when many of us won’t get better. That’s what “chronic” means! Even after saving the world, Lula doesn’t miraculously improve, and she must adapt to her bodymind’s changing needs. Jessie and I are thrilled that Córdova doesn’t fall for the damaging miracle cure trope that pervades SFF. Stories like Lula’s can help younger readers who might be dealing with grief and trauma in isolation by normalizing such experiences and debunking the myth that healing is linear or time-bound.
- Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas (more queer Latinx fantasy)
- A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney (urban fantasy with a badass MC)
- Dread Nation and Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland (zombie fighting!)
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.