Meagan Reads YA Fantasy: “Every Exquisite Thing” by Cassandra Clare and Maureen Johnson

I’m excited to share that I will be contributing monthly reviews to The Lesbrary book review blog, dedicated to talking about books by and about women/femmes who identify as queer.

Image from Goodreads

The first review I wrote for the blog is for “Every Exquisite Thing,” a short story part of the Ghosts of the Shadow Market collection from Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments universe. Follow this link to see the review. Let me know your thoughts if you’ve also read the collection or the story!

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Meagan Reads YA Fantasy: Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

I finished reading the first in the Brooklyn Brujas series, Labyrinth Lost, a few days ago. I decided to sit on my experience for a bit before writing about it. I want to talk about how I discovered the book in the first place.

Thanks to various Goodreads book giveaways, the novel was put on my radar and I entered all the different times I could. The cover alone intrigued me as I immediately recognized its Day of the Dead decoration, which meant this had to be a Latinx protagonist (I hadn’t noticed the series title at that point yet). Then I saw the series title and I saw the author’s name, so I clicked on her profile. I found out she was Ecuadorian raised in New York, so naturally, yes, I had to read this book. I have Ecuadorian roots myself so that made me inclined to read this story. I’m so glad I did.

labyrinth lost

I’ve read plenty of fantasy books between Tamora Pierce, Cassandra Clare, and Cinda Williams Chima. While I love those books and series, the mythology is heavily based in Anglo-Saxon culture and history. Even in fantastical, fictionalized worlds, Euro-centric stories prevail. I’m a fan of those authors and the stories and characters they’ve created, but even so, I never felt like I saw myself in any of those worlds or people.

Enter Zoraida Cordova with Brooklyn Brujas, and for the first time ever, in all the books about magic and myth and folklore that I’ve read, I saw someone like me. Alejandra Mortiz (the main character) talks about her Ecuadorian family who came to NY by way of Puerto Rico (shout out to my mom’s people). When I told my dad about this seemingly small, throwaway detail, he said, “Oh yeah a lot of us do that. That’s really accurate.”

My family has never practiced brujeria or anything like that, but I am familiar with the background of magic. Likewise, while we’ve never believed in or practiced witchcraft, the underlying concept of the power of ancestry and how the dead are never truly gone is something that resonated with me because in my family, we do believe that our loved ones are always with us, even when they pass. We believe in the other side, and that the veil that divides our worlds is rather thin.

There’s even a moment in the book where Alex is describing the superstition of how dropping utensils indicates visitors will be coming soon, and depending on which utensil was dropped, that would state if it was a man or a woman. I couldn’t help but laugh, because my mom yells, “Visita!” every time one of us drops a utensil in our house. Again, we’re not witches, but it seems certain superstitions just run through our culture. To see my own family beliefs represented in this fantastical world of magic just felt so validating.

The other thing I appreciated about this book was the depiction of Alex’s bisexuality. The fact that she was bisexual had no influence on the outcome of events or the narrative of the story whatsoever. Sure, as most YA novels are wont to do, there was a bit of a love triangle, but it never played into a drama of having to choose one over the other, of being either or. It was accepted and no one batted a lash at the fact that Alex was in love with Rishi. It was just as natural as her growing feelings for Nova.

While romance played a small role and was weaved throughout the plot, it never drove the story. If anything, the love for her family was the driving force behind the story. The fact that her family never questioned or made a deal out of Alex having a crush on Rishi was just such a relief to see in a YA novel. Instead, it was mainly about magic and family and the power a girl can have.

Overall, if you’re interested in a different culture’s take on magic and fantasy, I highly recommend this book. Labyrinth Lost was just such a fun adventure and kept me turning the pages. I read it in eight days, and I can’t remember the last time I read a book that fast with my busy schedule.

Have any of you read the book? What were your thoughts? Let me know in the comments!

Meagan Reads YA Fantasy: The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima

Image from Goodreads

I’m going into my third year of the 26 book reading challenge (I’m a slow reader–sue me). For book 17, “a book by an author you love,” I went with Cinda Williams Chima’s The Demon King since I loved her Heir series.

A quick rundown of the story. It follows the lives of two characters: Raisa, the princess of the realm with a spunky attitude, and Han, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks just trying to get by. While Raisa is blissfully unaware of the injustices of the kingdom and dealing with her mother wanting to marry her off as soon as she comes of age, Han is trying to avoid his old gang life, but still make an honest living by selling and trading to provide for his family.

Fans of Tamora Pierce’s Trickster duology or Bekah Cooper series would like this book. It’s got classic fantasy elements with magic and wizards and political intrigue. The world building feels grounded in reality though, especially with the clan of Marissa Pines, a village outside of Fellsmarch, the royal city. There’s a clear dichotomy throughout the novel with the princess heir being of the rich elite living in the castle in the city, and Han being a foster child of the humble clans folk living off the land. Overall, it’s the equivalent of European colonists versus the natives of the country.

I loved the descriptions Chima creates with how the clans people live, in tight knit communities that are in commune with natural remedies and trading goods for goods. It reminded me a lot of the smaller villages and towns I visited during my vacation to Ecuador six years ago. I could hear the crackling of the fires as the characters held meetings and shared stories under the open sky, surrounded by woods.

The reader learns things through the eyes of Raisa and Han, so when a new detail is brought to light that surprises or confuses them, they can’t help but feel blindsided too. There’s a parallel to the two characters in how they learn about the world¬†they’ve been a part of this whole time was built on lies.

For Han, he comes to feel like he can’t trust the people he grew up with or cares for, while Raisa starts to realize she’s far too ignorant of the strife going on around her in her own queendom. You can’t help but feel the pangs of coming of age, at that moment where you start to see things as an adult would, and not yet being ready for that responsibility.

In the world that Chima created,¬†there is a legend of an ancestral queen, Hanalea, who was abducted by the Demon King, a wizard, and forced to sacrifice her life for the greater good of the people. It is this legend that founds the people’s beliefs, and why the clan holds control of magic for wizards, allowing them the use of it through talismans for brief periods of time. The wizards serve the line of Hanalea, and thus royalty and magic can never marry.

Of course, as is apt to happen, some people don’t want to play by these rules anymore. This is where all the lies come undone little by little. Raisa and Han must now make their decisions and judgments based on new truths, breaking from everything they’ve ever known.

Wizards are dangerously close to regaining their old power, the clan is not as righteous as the legends would have it, Raisa and her royal line are in danger of extinction, and Han would rather have nothing to do with any of it, but somehow is in the middle of all of it.

I’d have to say my biggest criticism of the book is its pacing. Especially in the beginning, it’s quite stop and go and you wish the narration would just pick a speed and stick with it. The way the story reads at times is clumsy and expository, clearly setting the whole thing up for the next book. There’s lots of background information that’s conveyed through character dialogue, but it’s scenes in which the characters are specifically sitting down to have a meeting or talk, making it feel like the writer just couldn’t figure out how else to portray these details.

In conjunction with the pacing, and the fact that the reader knows this is book one of a series, Han’s and Raisa’s stories take way too long to intersect. Obviously, as each chapter jumps back and forth between them, we know they’re going to meet and have some kind of connection to one another eventually, but it wasn’t until about halfway through the book that the connection happens. Even then, there’s only one or two chapters in which they’re tied together before being severed into their individual lines again. This made the novel feel a bit fractured, so at times it was frustrating trying to read through.

Overall, an excellent tale with many twists and fun characters. Have any of you read this book? What were your thoughts on it? Let me know in the comments!