Manuela Azul doesn’t exist. Not on paper at least. She and her mother are undocumented immigrants from Argentina living (more like hiding) in Miami. But while her mother goes to work every day, Manu is trapped in a cramped apartment. She can’t go to school or make friends, not just because she is undocumented but because of her strange, gold and silver star-shaped irises. So she sits at home and dreams of the day when she and her mother can apply for citizenship.
That day never comes. When ICE raids her mother’s work and tosses her into a detention center and Manu’s surrogate grandmother is gravely injured, Manu is desperate. A chance encounter takes her to El Laberinto, a magic school where boys learn how to be lobizones (werewolves) and girls brujas (witches). Manu suspects the answers to all her family secrets can be found at the school, but how much is she willing to risk to find them? Who will she risk? Because now for the first time in her life she has friends who care about her and a crush on a boy who looks at her like he wants to kiss her. But El Laberinto isn’t the haven Manu hopes it is. She was illegal in the human world and, when her magical abilities reveal themselves, she becomes illegal in the magic world as well. Everything is at stake and the choices laid out before Manu will make or break the world.
There is a lot to like about Romina Garber’s latest novel. The story is tightly plotted, with enough loose threads left at the end to easily fill a second or third book. The characters are as enchanting as they are frustrating, and I mean that in a good way. They are complicated people with messy lives; in other words, they may be magical but they feel ever so human. While the major plot points are too glaringly obvious to be real twists, it’s actually kind of fun watching the narrative hurl toward the expected outcome. Knowing what was about to happen lowered the tension, but not the stakes.
What makes Lobizona work so well is how Garber systematically dismantles magic school tropes, particularly the ones associated with that author who shall not be named. For the Argentinian witches and werewolves, roles are prescribed by gender. Everyone has a place, a duty, a responsibility, whether it be to play sports or become the equivalent of a magic cop or bear more magical children to keep the population numbers up. Only girls become brujas and only boys become lobizones. Except that’s not exactly true. The gendered nature of the Spanish language informs the gendered roles for the people of Kerana. But as Manu makes clear, just because the language is gendered doesn’t mean magic is.
A little internet sleuthing reveals that the Argentinian lobizon was inspired by the cursed seventh son of Tau and Kerana, deities in the mythology of the Guaraní people who lived in the area before conquistadors and colonizers. Manu isn’t the first to deviate from the norm, only the most recent, which begs the question of how much the contemporary roles in turn deviate from the pre-colonial ones. Are the modern day people of Kerana basing their culture on colonizer rules? Have they let white supremacy smother their Indigenous traditions? Garber doesn’t directly answer these questions, but the answers are there, roiling under the surface every time someone calls Manu “illegal” or speaks disdainfully of those who challenge the system.
The magic of the werewolves and witches has been reshaped by Spanish conquest from its more fluid Indigenous origins into something rigid and tightly controlled. It is as colonized as the people who practice it, and they are so embedded in the system that few are able to see the shackles of white supremacy hindering them. Given Manu’s power, it’s obvious that stepping away from a colonial mindset and reasserting Indigenous traditions would allow their culture and people to flourish. We see this in the real world where Indigenous people have brought their native languages, food ways, and cultural practices back from the brink. They rescued their ancestors’ beliefs from the eradicating forces of colonialism and merged the old and the now into something new and wholly them. But doing so means confronting systems of oppression and being willing to let go of the things that privilege some while subjugating others. The people of Kerana are unwilling and unready for that confrontation, but Manu makes it unavoidable.
If it’s not already obvious, I enjoyed the heck out of Romina Garber’s Lobizona. Wild yet contemplative and outlandish yet rooted in reality, it offered almost everything I wanted in a YA fantasy series opener. A year is too long to wait for the sequel. The anticipation is too much!
Alex Brown is a teen services librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.