Fiction Unbound contributors CS Peterson and Amanda Boldenow got together to discuss their most recent read—Labyrinth Lost, by author Zoraida Córdova, a contemporary YA fantasy about the coming of age of Alex, a Latina encantrix living in contemporary Brooklyn. On her 16th birthday, Alex dreads celebrating her Deathday, the day her family will gather together and call the spirits of the ancestors to bless her and her powers. Alex doesn’t want her powers, though, as she only sees them as trouble. When she attempts to reject the blessing from her ancestors, she accidentally banishes their spirits to Los Lagos, the magical world of deities, fairies, and an evil bruja, the Devourer, who has taken over the land. The Devourer wants Alex’s powers, and threatens to destroy Alex’s family if Alex doesn’t give them to her. Alex follows a portal into Los Lagos with her best friend and a strange boy with black tattoos all over his body, embarking on a hero's journey that breaks with the traditional Western mold.
CS Peterson: I really enjoyed the fact that Alex’s story is a hero’s journey that is not based on northern European mythology. There is a whole planet full of magical traditions. Each one reflects our human efforts to understand and order the unknowable mysteries that surround us. The magical worlds of contemporary YA fantasy thus far have been built almost exclusively on the backs of Egypt/Greek/Rome/Nordic schemas. As if the beliefs informing the world-building of fantasy writers were limited to the received canon of the mythical development of the colonizing class.
Amanda Boldenow: The colonizing class is a force Alex and others must fight throughout the book, and is represented symbolically by the Devourer. The Devourer literally devours life and the power of others to make herself stronger, and hides behind a mask of death. This calls to mind early European “explorers” who arrived on “new” continents and eradicated and/or enslaved the indigenous populations while plundering the natural resources. While the Devourer is a multi-layered symbol, her oppressive rule and abuses of power cast a net of death and despair across Los Lagos.
In the meadow, Alex encounters magical creatures who seem to have an idyllic, pastoral life, but on closer inspection Alex sees “[t]heir bracelets are replaced by manacles.” The meadowkin are not free, even though it appears so on the surface. They are like minority groups in the US, which experience micro-aggressions and missing privileges daily. It’s easy for members of a majority group to be caught up in the illusion that everything is fine, in part because it is so easy to focus only on the pretty veneer that individuals in the majority enjoy (via privilege), rather than to look beneath the surface at what’s really going on. Alex’s power is rooted in her family and cultural history, though, and through that strength she is able to free the meadowkin from their manacles so they can rebuild their lives in freedom and truth.
CSP: Córdova says in the Author’s Note that she names her witches “brujas and brujos because their origins do not come from northern Europe or Salem. Alex’s ancestors come from Ecuador, Spain, Africa, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Her magic is like Latin America—a combination of the old world and new.” It is an energetic mix that informs the fantasy realm of Los Lagos. Mama Juanita stands with Alex on the surface of a pond at one point. I couldn’t help thinking of Beyoncé referencing the Youba orisha Oshun in the “Hold Up” track from Lemonade. Oshun is the deity that governs water, growth and love. She’s portrayed dressed in yellow, walking on water, often with a cigarillo, like Mama Juanita. Córdova builds the world of Los Lagos from these inspirations, without co-opting the specifics of any particular faith practice. The Deathday coming-of-age rite, a vivid creation of the author’s imagination, blends seamlessly with details chosen from disparate cultural traditions, like calling the deities of Alex’s world “Deos”—Latin for “the gods”.
AB: Los Lagos is a perfect mixture of adolescent and cultural landscape. Alex is literally navigating the unknown territory of the source of her powers (her cultural and familial history), first love, friendship that evolves and changes as a teenager nears the transition into adulthood, and her own evolving self as she begins to explore who she is at her core, expressing it for the first time, rather than denying it, in Los Lagos as she traverses her heroine’s journey.
CSP: In terms of the classical hero’s journey, Alex’s story spends most of it’s time on the refusal of the call to adventure and the consequences of refusing. The same thing happens in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Housekeeping, which is definitely not speculative fiction. But I find it interesting that the reasoning of the female protagonists are essentially parallel in the two books: A young girl has laid before her two paths, one conventional and predictable, and one leading into the unknown. The young girls know that every female adult example who has chosen the unknown has suffered, and some have even died. In the beginning, the risk the unknown seems too great, and by comparison the predictable path seems to be the right choice. But by the end of each story the predictable path is shown to be an illusion.
I’m thinking of Beyoncé again. In the monologue at the beginning of “Hold Up,” Beyoncé/Oshun says, “I tried to change. Closed my mouth more, tried to be softer, prettier, less awake.” But none of this self-denial produces a life of safety. To truly live is to risk everything. No matter which path the hero choses, death will be there. My favorite quote comes from Alex’s Aunt Rosa: “Death is the most sure but unexpected part about life. It’s almost up there with love. It’s bound to happen, but how and when—now that’s the tricky part.”
AB: This reminds me again of the Devourer’s death mask: all roads in Los Lagos lead to it, with the easier-looking paths having the same amount of difficulty as the scarier ones. And by leading to the Devourer, all roads lead to the ever-present legacy of colonialism in Western society. To truly destroy the Devourer, Alex has to unmask her and show her for what she really is. In doing so, Alex must accept her own true identity as an encantrix, and her place in a lineage of brujos and brujas.
CSP: Rejecting or accepting who you are as a member of a family is the central theme in Córdova’s book. This isn’t to say that the individual relations are always easy to get along with. But the consequences of complete family breakdown and abandonment are played out in Nova’s character. The magic still awakes in him and he is full of light, like the exploding star that is his namesake. But, as he tells Alex, his “family’s so broken, even the dead have forgotten us.” Without the support and love of his ancestors, his life literally doesn’t go the way it should. I feel like the conclusion of this story settles Alex in the female relationships in her family and the wider world. The male relationships are still an open question. The ending—no spoilers here—sets up a moment that is full of promise for a sequel (and the subtitle of Labyrinth Lost is “Brooklyn Brujas #1”). I look forward to seeing what Córdova has in store for Alex in the next book!