Katabasis means a going-down, a descent. It’s a word sometimes used to describe journeys to the underworld. Anabasis is its opposite, a going-up: the most famous narrative is Xenophon’s Anabasis, the account of the Ten Thousand “going up” to the sea. Descent and rise, a symmetrical pairing.
Katabasis and anabasis are the words that come to mind when it comes to Zoraida Cordova’s Labyrinth Lost and Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules, books which I read back-to-back. They share some similarities—they are both about young bisexual women discovering the truth of their worlds and learning to claim and use their power, political or otherwise, and they’re both marketed as YA—but they are very different books.
In Labyrinth Lost, Alejandra—Alex—is a bruja from a family of brujas. Unlike her sisters (one elder, and one younger) and the entire rest of her family, though, Alex doesn’t want her powers. Alex is, in fact, convinced that her powers can bring nothing but harm. So at a coming-of-age party, where all her family has gathered to bless her powers, she works a spell she thinks will rid her of magic. But it backfires. Instead of getting rid of her magic, Alex discovers that her entire family has been banished to a place called Los Lagos, a kind of underworld—a place between the land of mortals and the land of gods, once a good place, but now ruled by a twisted being called the Devourer. If Alex doesn’t rescue her family, the Devourer will consume them, too, and use their power to break free from Los Lagos.
At first, her only ally is Nova, a young man who’s both very pretty and dubiously trustworthy. He’s her guide to the land of Los Lagos. But later, she discovers that Rishi, her best friend—her only friend—followed her. Rishi is wholly human—only human—but she believes in Alex. As Alex negotiates a way through Los Lagos, she comes to believe in herself, too.
Labyrinth Lost is a fun, entertaining coming-of-age story, with strong characters. I recommend it.
Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules, on the other hand, is a tour de force. People have been telling me how good it is since it came out, well over a year ago, and I’m ashamed to say I doubted them. It is emotionally intense and vividly characterised. And the reader gradually comes to realise, as Greta, the main character does, just how much Greta has been avoiding really seeing the context in which she lives in order to maintain her sanity.
Where Labyrinth Lost is a katabasis, I cannot think of The Scorpion Rules as anything other than anabasis, a rising, a coming-up, a great gorgeous flowering of triumph.
I cannot talk about it coherently. It made me cry, great big heaving sobs of feelings—and in all my life, the number of books I can remember making me cry still lies somewhere under thirty. It is amazing good, at times wrenching, intensely human, and filled with feeling. Thematically, it’s concerned with sacrifice and right action, one’s responsibility to others and one’s responsibility to one’s self, love and loss and duty. And it is just… brilliantly constructed, immensely satisfying, gloriously well done.
Did I mention that it made me cry?
If you haven’t read The Scorpion Rules yet, do it. Seriously. Do it now.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.