by Zoraida Córdova
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Book 1: Labyrinth Lost / Book 2: Bruja Born
Brooklyn Brujas is the collective title for a new fantasy series by Ecuadorian-born Zoraida Córdova, who now lives in Queens, New York. According to notes at the back of the book, she used some traditional stories from her homeland, combined with others from Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Africa, etc, but some elements are of her own invention. Labyrinth Lost is set in present day Brooklyn, the main characters being an extended family of brujas/brujos (witches). Alejandra Mortiz is fifteen, second of three girls in her family; Lula is a year or two older, Rose is the youngest. The three sisters possess different powers, as do their mother, other relatives, and close friends. I'm not sure about their father, who disappeared seven or eight years earlier. Most everyone else believes he is dead, but Alejandra thinks otherwise.
Most people call her Alex, although her mother usually uses her full name, and Lula sometimes calls her Alé (pronounced Ah-LAY). Lula shares the power of healing with her mother Carmen, while Rose seems to have pre-cognitive abilities. Everyone in the family is frustrated that Alex's abilities have not manifested yet, but they hope that will change on her upcoming "Deathday," a ritual coming-of-age ceremony in which a person calls on their dead ancestors to guide them in realizing their destiny. There's a problem though. That is the last thing Alex wants, since she is convinced an early manifestation of her powers is what scared her father away. Since then she has consciously suppressed her abilities, wanting to be free of them. She has also kept the secret of her family's powers from her best friend, Rishi. All of that is about to change. During a shopping expedition to gather things for her Deathday ceremony, Alex encounters the mysterious Nova, another brujo, who works at the local spice/potion/spell shop as a delivery boy. She realizes she had seen him a couple of days before, when Lula's boyfriend nearly ran him over with his car on the way to school. For reasons she can't explain, she confides in him about her anxiety over her powers, and inquires if there is any way she can renounce them altogether. Nova cautions her not to tempt fate, and promises he will bring some special ingredients to make her party a big success.
It's not a success. Instead of her ancestors appearing before her, a dark portal is opened and all of her family is sucked away. Nova, who had already left the house, returns when he hears Alex's screams. He tells her a dark spirit has taken them to the underworld of Los Lagos, and that he knows how to create another portal to follow and rescue them. The rest of the book reads like a dark, gritty, and gory take on Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz, with maybe a bit of Orpheus descending to the underworld. Los Lagos is a limbo inhabited by souls of the dead hoping for some resolution to their fate, so that they can move on to either Heaven or Hell, or whatever their final resting place may be. Alex learns there are some who are not dead, but have been trapped there for various reasons, even some who have made the journey of their own volition, since the real world was too much for them to endure. They learn of the Devourer, who has been slowly ravaging Los Lagos for a long time, utilizing some creatures who have magical abilities to trap others, all so that she can feed off their energy. Alex learns the most likely place to find her family is at the Tree of Souls, and that they must get there before the next lunar eclispse, but there are many dangers before that, and the tree is surrounded by a labyrinth of horrors. Even if they manage to reach the labyrinth, can they survive the dangers within, and if so, how will they free those trapped in the Tree?
I won't answer those questions. Considering it's the first book in a series, you can assume some will survive, but a few details of the journey might be surprising. The opening chapters were a little slow, with too much reiteration of Alex's anxiety over her powers, while still not fully explaining what it was she did to frighten her father, or if it was mentioned I missed it. That's the only negative I can think of. Once in Los Lagos, the story ramps up the pace of excitement and danger. Without her even realizing it, Alex grows into her powers quickly, making unlikely alliances with some who had previously tried to hurt her, gaining their confidence to join her in the fight. There are also betrayals and a very surprising appearance by someone not at all connected with Alex's supernatural world. I'm not sure how the author would classify this series, but someone at fantasticfiction.com labeled them as for adults only. I don't think that's right. There are some disturbing scenes, as well as mature themes, but they are handled subtly and with taste. Probably not for pre-teens, but I think 13 or 14 and up is okay. But just because the protagonist is a teen, it doesn't necessarily make it YA either, as others have described it. Perhaps today's younger readers can handle more serious content than was the norm decades ago. It goes to some dark places, but also has an undercurrent of familial love and loyalty, which we all (even this 67-year-old) need in our life.
Alex finally learns what many others had already expected, that she is an encantrix, possibly the strongest bruja in many generations. I would have expected the second book to further explore her powers, or maybe shift the focus to Rose, but the author says it will be Lula. I'm sure the two younger sisters will figure into the action, or at least I hope they do, and I'm anxious to find out. Recommended.
I bought the ebook of the above title, but got Bruja Born free from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. (Scroll up if you haven't read the first part of the review.) I'd say it is equal to the first in both character development and plot, with many new elements introduced. We get a broader view of all the supernatural goings on around Brooklyn and other areas of New York. We learn more about the High Circle of bruja organization; the Thorne Hill Alliance is introduced, a group that tracks many different types of magical and supernatural activities; then there's the Knights of Lavant and other Hunters, who police the area, punish those who betray the alliance, and deflect law enforcement from situations they aren't prepared to understand. There are only two things I'd criticize: Patricio Mortiz, Alex's father, reappeared at the very end of the first book, but very little was done here to elaborate his story, but that is likely to happen in a third book; also, I had hoped more would be explored with Alex's new, more-than-just-friends relationship with Rishi, who appears briefly at the beginning and again at the end, but was conveniently absent through most of the book while attending a cousin's wedding in Florida. Those are just complaints of stories not examined as fully as expected, I have no complaints about the plot we do get. Besides, even though the whole family is featured, the story is being narrated by Lula this time.
Maybe three complaints. The title confuses me. There is no new bruja born, unless it refers to someone who discovers new levels of their powers, but the one with the major revelations is Rose, and as I said earlier, this is Lula's story. This book also has an afterword, in which the author refers to it as "Circle Unbroken," without any explanation of why the title was changed, or who was responsible. I've had the Kindle file for nearly four months, but held off since there were several others that published sooner, but the new title was already established. I think that original title would have been better, not only since it is similar to the first, but it also encapsulates the major dynamics of the plot. The High Circle is the ruling council of the bruja world, deciding which events need their attention, which type of magic would best address it. It is also a circle of brujas working together that accomplishes the task at the end. Before that, Lula withheld some information from the others, as did Alex in the first book. That makes sense, because teens are typically protective of their space, wanting to work out their problems for themselves, not always willing to own up to their mistakes. Parents also tend to withhold things from their children, in the misguided notion of protecting them from situations they think they may not be capable of understanding. But it is cooperation and sharing of information that wins the day in the end.
Bruja Born will be out in one month, June 5, 2018. No more details. I recommend this, and look forward with anticipation to further adventures. Not only will we likely learn where Patricio had been and what he did during his absence, I expect Rose will narrate the next book. She is the most intelligent member of the family, and is poised to be even stronger than either of her sisters, maybe even the new encantrix. I can't wait.
On a side note, it's possible I'm not remembering an event in the first book, but one of the members of the Thorne Hill Alliance mentions something that had happened in the past, which reminded me of an event in Daniel José Older's Shadowshaper. It would be intriguing if the two worlds crossed over. I'm probably mistaken, but if you liked Shadowshaper you'll be sure to like Brooklyn Brujas.
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