As an opening note: I’m infatuated with all things death-related. Death culture, mortuary traditions, practices of commemoration — it’s my jam. Back in university I wrote a paper on Los Dias de Muertos and had a blast doing it. That paper very nearly made it to my university’s theology publication, but I slacked off (I was graduating. What can I say?) Throw a little witchcraft into the mix when you’re dealing with liminal spaces (i.e. the inbetween place between life and death, or even coming of age scenarios where the protagonist is shunted out of her element to be heavily tested on a completely foreign playing field like the land of the dead), and I turn into a slavering fool: it’s a niche that’s rarely explored in young adult fiction to boot, so when I first heard about Labyrinth Lost, I preordered it after barely skimming the summary.
The copy I received was generously provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review, and honest I shall be:
Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova: Initial Impressions
I had reader expectations, and they were not met. It was good, but not brilliant. Satisfying, but feeling as if it’s the opening gambit in a much larger series. Contained and wrapped up neatly, but perhaps too easily because while the odds were weighted against Alex, the protagonist, you’re still dealing with magic with very light repercussions for its use and abuse, and an otherworld where — in YA fantasy terms, especially when dealing with creatures — I’m weighing the world building against something like Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone and that results in either a pass or fail grade that I’m going to be very strict about because I’m very biased, and I really wasn’t expecting this to open with horror and end in dark fantasy.
That which I adored
Let me tell you: The hook? That sequence leading to the first pinch point? Solid. So solid I could smell the waft of incense and the melting candle wax. So solid it makes my heart flutter. So solid I got angry, because that’s exactly how I want to write and it’s something I strive for, and then Cordova shocks the hell out of you, and Alex’s fear is so convincing that you — the reader — get scared too.
Super tight writing. Super atmospheric. Super fascinating that she’s created this subculture with hints of real-world woven through: you don’t see the line where fantasy meets reality, and after a while, you can’t really tell which is which (witch is witch.) The love interest, Nova, is yummy; and I like that Alex, rather than swooning, decides at the onset that this is a guy who she shouldn’t get involved with. There’s tension, they’re scrappy together, but eventually Alex’s defences weaken (which is exactly what you start to hope for.)
Most redeeming for me was the portrayal of Aunt Ro at the very beginning of the book. Beautiful. Enigmatic. Dark. Fluid. Lyrical. The whole setup solidifies Alex’s motivations before the shift into the second act happens. The world setup for the brujas in contemporary times, as well as their rituals, is totally fascinating and wicked engrossing, and I’m grateful for the afterword where Cordova offers a bit of insight into the culture and traditions that inspired her to write the book. I’m remorseful, however, because that’s exactly what I hoped would be weaved through the story, and not just an afterword.
That which I didn’t adore so much
Let me get back to that “expectation versus reality” comment. The instant the characters hit the crucible — the figurative one; where they cross the first threshold in the story and there’s no way out but through the rest of the story — the scenery changes. We’re introduced to a new landscape that isn’t what you would expect for a book about the dead, at all. It’s a fantasy world with creatures, and the transition is rather jarring. To be fair, I’m down with dark fantasy. I like monsters. I relish them. I’m super good with monsters being sentient and having their own agendas. I love faeries — especially the dark Unseelie sort.
But I need to believe it. I need to be coaxed into believing in your world.
If you’ve never read Daughter of Smoke and Bone, you’ll understand what I mean when I reference its pacing, its world building, and its transition between our reality to another. Taylor executes the transition with patience and with a deft hand, she leads you into believing the world she’s created gently by the wrist.
Labyrinth Lost isn’t so patient. The shift happens abruptly, and the encounters in the Labyrinth are sudden. You don’t have time to adapt to the new setting. It makes it harder for me to believe it, and the experience was so jarring, that I had difficulty sympathizing with the plight of the creatures that inhabit the world largely because I was looking squint-eyed at everything that Alex encountered from there on. I was really hoping for an overwhelming amount of spirits following the initial transition. That’s the expectation: spirits and ghouls and shambling things. Hey! A book about the dead! Ghosts n’ stuff, right? Eh. The Labyrinth has lots of creatures? Creatures that didn’t quite factor into the setup of the book, so their arrival was a little more whimsy than I was hoping for, and somewhat less compelling.
It was at that point that I started noticing the bones of the plot sticking through the story, and things got pretty predictable from there on.
You know what was awesome, though? All of Alex’s dead relatives. I would love love love to read stories about those characters. Cordova has a real knack with characterization, and I wish there had been more focus on developing the folks that had the least amount of page time. Then: surprise love triangle, some sort of battle, an appearance and tidy defeat of the villain (she had a cool name, though; also nice to see a woman be the bad guy. More of those, pls!), and they’re back.
It made the next half of the story a bit of a slog to get through. It took a total of ten days to complete the book, and I read two others in between in a fraction of the time because the experience wasn’t what I’d expected, and I couldn’t wholly embrace it.
An entertaining read with some soft spots that regrettably didn’t live up to my expectations, and potential for a sequel.
Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida CórdovaLabyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova
on January 1st 1970
Genres: Dark Fantasy
Check it out: Goodreads
Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives.
I fall to my knees. Shattered glass, melted candles and the outline of scorched feathers are all that surround me. Every single person who was in my house – my entire family — is gone.
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…
Beautiful Creatures meets Daughter of Smoke and Bone with an infusion of Latin American tradition in this highly original fantasy adventure.