A review by Amparo Ortiz for Tor.
Mythical creatures abound in literature. Whether it’s gold-hoarding dragons or flesh-eating zombies, the monstrous remains a permanent fixture in adult and children’s fiction. However, most of these literary representations have been inspired by European folklore. It’s easier to find a book with Romanian Strigoi attending high school than it is for Chile’s El Peuchén to terrorize its protagonist. The Loch Ness Monster is a household name, but readers will be hard-pressed to find stories centered on the Yacumama and its frightening antics in the Amazon River.
Despite the prevalence of beastly figures we’re familiar with, some authors are adding to the monster canon by drawing from their respective Latinx cultures. These recent and upcoming novels explore magical beings through the lens of underrepresented voices, specifically the Latinx diáspora living in the U.S. Their stories also provide varied definitions of family, fear, and straddling the line between belonging and not.
Here are five books written by Latinx authors with mythical creatures to satisfy your literary monstrous needs.
Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal
Young adult horror is rarely set in the Caribbean, let alone in my native Puerto Rico. Cardinal’s debut, Five Midnights, follows sixteen-year-old Lupe, who’s visiting her police-chief uncle for the summer. She joins him in catching a killer that’s targeting five male best friends, including co-narrator Javier. The more Lupe and Javier study the killer’s pattern, the sooner they realize it’s El Cuco. Known as El Cucuy and El Coco in some Latin-American countries, this legendary monster’s backstory goes hand-in-hand with childhood and morality. Latinx parents often pull out the Cuco card whenever their kids misbehave. It serves as a warning to obey their elders, or else El Cuco will snatch them away as punishment. Cardinal sets El Cuco loose in a bleak, crime-infested version of Puerto Rico, where retribution for past mistakes can lead to the grave.
Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older
Walking corpses and spirits are nothing new, but in Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper, these paranormal beings are bound to art. Sierra Santiago is Older’s protagonist, a Puerto Rican Afro-Latina who’s finishing a dragon mural in her Brooklyn neighborhood. She’s also a shadowshaper, one who can bring the dead back into our world through her paintings. As Sierra teams up with Robbie, a Haitian artist, she digs deeper into what it means to honor your ancestors’ traditions, deals with the ever-growing reality of gentrification, and squares off against a supernatural foe that’s accustomed to stealing from black and brown people.
Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova
Another book set in Brooklyn is Zoraida Córdova’s Labyrinth Lost. Córdova treats readers to her fresh take on brujería, focusing on the long line of brujas from the Mortiz family. Alejandra “Alex” Mortiz doesn’t want to be a bruja. She’s set to fully embrace her powers during her Deathday ceremony, but when she rejects her ancestral magic with a spell of her own, she accidentally sends her family members to Los Lagos—a Wonderland-esque underworld filled with dark magic and treacherous forces. Alex sets off on a quest to save her loved ones with the help of Nova, a male brujo, and Rishi, her female best friend. Not only does Córdova fill her pages with a hearty blend of Ecuadorian and Puerto Rican customs, they serve as inspiration for her brujería’s magical system and matriarchal religion. The beautifully crafted love triangle between bisexual Alex and her quest companions adds a layer of complexity to this witchy book.
Lobizona by Romina Garber
One of 2020’s most anticipated releases is Romina Garber’s Lobizona. This young adult fantasy is inspired by Argentina’s rich folklore, but with a twist. If a boy is the seventh son in a row, he’s cursed to become a lobizón—a werewolf—and if a girl is the seventh daughter in a row, she’ll grow up to be a bruja. Garber’s protagonist, Manu, is a lobizona, and she’s not supposed to exist. She’s also an illegal immigrant whose mother has just been arrested by ICE. Lobizona promises a fresh alternative to the werewolf myth, as well as an unflinching exploration of what it means to be the unwanted Other in worlds both real and magical.
Muse Squad: The Cassandra Curse by Chantel Acevedo
The only middle grade title on the list is Chantel Acevedo’s upcoming Muse Squad: The Cassandra Curse (out July 7th). Instead of taking from Latinx mythology, Acevedo’s book weaves one of the most well known figures in Greek lore with the Cuban-American experience. When her protagonist, Callie Martínez-Silva, discovers she’s one of the nine Muses, she begins training alongside the Muse Squad—a group of young girls tasked with ensuring humankind’s safety, and they get to do so from the comfort of Callie’s vibrant hometown of Miami.