A version of this book review for The Labyrinth’s Archivist first appeared in The Lesbrary and contains spoilers!
The Labyrinth’s Archivist is the first in the Broken Cities series. It follows Azulea, the daughter of the Head Archivist and granddaughter of the former Head Archivist. The Labyrinth contains winding paths and hallways with gates to other worlds. The Residence, which houses the Archive, acts as a safe way station for passing travelers and traders. But when Azulea’s Amma dies unexpectedly, she suspects foul play. It’s up to Azulea and her friends to solve the murder mystery before the killers take more Archivists.
Plot of The Labyrinth’s Archivist
Azulea’s mother is stubborn and rooted in the old ways. But her Amma always believed she could follow in their footsteps. That’s why when her grandmother dies under suspicious circumstances, Azulea charges forward with the task of finding her killer. She does so despite the doubts coming from her community and even her own mother. It’s this persistence to succeed in a world that favors the able-bodied that makes Azulea such a great character to root for.
The queer romance did not dominate the story, but it added another element to the sci-fi murder mystery arc. Azulea and Melehti have a history, and as events unfold, that chemistry returns, hard to ignore. The narration states that their relationship didn’t work out because Azulea felt that accepting Melehti’s help made her dependent. As a blind woman, she didn’t want to lean on anyone’s help for too long.
This aspect of the story brings another layer to Azulea’s characterization. It shows that even she suffers from her society’s mentality of disabilities. In a world that deems the disabled as incapable, Azulea puts herself through many hoops to prove she isn’t, often to her detriment.
Culture and Setting
Al-Mohamed creates a rich and diverse world with her multi-species cast of characters and delightful sci-fi setting. The story never reveals if this world is set on the Earth as we know it. But enough clues make it sound like it’s off planet. The bustling marketplace life with its many beings from different worlds strongly resonates with the world-building of Star Wars.
Though that is the case, it is clear that Middle Eastern culture heavily influences the makeup of this world. The characters refer to the marketplace, where a majority of the story takes place, as the souq. This gives readers enough detail to know Arabic or Middle Eastern society and culture inspired this world’s creation. Details abound about the food people eat, like aish, and the use of spices like cumin and cardamom, common in South Asian and Arabic cuisine, indicate these cultures as the foundation for the Residence’s world.
My favorite aspect of the whole story is Azulea’s character. She is a queer woman of color with a disability; she is blind. In the Archivist tradition, individuals should be self-sufficient and able to complete the tasks the job entails without assistance. Azulea challenges those traditions by enlisting the help of her best friend and cousin, Peny, coded as having a learning disability. Together, they can be Archivists. While Azulea is the mind that processes and analyzes information quickly, Peny is the eyes that can see and draw the maps Azulea describes.
Readers can interpret the Archivist society’s views of people with disabilities as a commentary on how our own real-world society treats the disabled. Azulea proves that, given the proper tools and resources to even the playing field, she is just as capable of getting the job done as an able-bodied person.
But Azulea isn’t the only one proving this. Peny also defies expectations by supplying the main character with the skills she lacks, as well as by learning the trade despite her learning disabilities. Al-Mohamed portrays another character named Handsome Dan as an amputee with a symbiotic tentacle as his “prosthetic” leg. The novella is rife with people with disabilities, and they are all full, complex characters, capable, competent, intelligent, and independent spirits. The fact that they need assistance doesn’t make them any less so.
Rating for The Labyrinth’s Archivist
Overall, the biggest weakness of the novella is just that: it’s a novella. Many places in the story felt like they needed a deeper dive and more room to breathe, which the author could have accomplished with a full-length novel.
Even the Labyrinth in the title barely gets explored throughout the story. It never details where the Labyrinth came from, how a city arose around it, and the role it plays in their world. It spends a lot of time on its Archivists and how they interact with it, but apart from the Residence, not much is known about the Labyrinth itself, which makes the story feel like it’s missing something, considering the novella’s title.
That being said, it is still an excellent read and highly recommended. I know I want to read the rest of the series.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars