My read of Lobizona is another triumph of fantasy Bingo. Although I had a blogger friend raving about Romina Garber’s new YA series, I saw little buzz elsewhere in my fantasy spaces, and it would’ve likely passed me by entirely if I hadn’t been seeking options for the Latin American Author square. And, as the word “triumph” suggests, I’m very glad I found this one.
Lobizona stars Manu Azul, a teenage girl living a sheltered life in Miami. But her shelter is not a mark of privilege—it’s a mark of her mother’s dual fears of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and of the deadly anger of Manu’s father’s family. Manu might blend easily into the multicultural life of Miami but for her unnatural eyes and the debilitating pain that comes with every full moon. Combined with the dire consequences of discovery by ICE or her mysterious relatives, these unique markers force her deep into the shadows. But when a flight for her life amidst attack on her family leads Manu to a world of mystery just outside Miami, she dares hope she has finally found a place to belong.
In many ways, Lobizona is a Spanglish* love letter to Harry Potter, but with the isolation of magical ancestry in a mundane world supplemented by the isolation of the undocumented experience and of magical abilities that violate the sensibilities of the hidden world just as much as they do the ordinary one. And, like Harry Potter, Lobizona grabs the reader from the opening chapters and doesn’t let go. Manu’s plight is utterly compelling from the opening chapters, and the hidden world of magic evokes a real wonder, making the novel nearly impossible to put down. Amidst the shock and awe of the ever-popular unexpected twist, one can forget the power of a story that tells the reader what it means to do and executes the story with skill and heart. But Lobizona does just that, literally revealing a major plot development in the title. Yet when the in-story reveal comes, it’s breathtaking. And that’s the sign of an outstanding build-up.
*If you don’t know Spanish, don’t fear. The main character, an immigrant to the United States, thinks in English and translates any Spanish dialogue in her head. If you, like me, are trying to learn Spanish, being able to parse the occasional dialogue from Spanish-speaking side characters feels like a fun little Easter egg.
Lobizona is a young adult novel, and it certainly hits a few of the classic YA tropes. As an adult reader, I find some YA tropes entertaining and others tiresome, and I don’t tend to enjoy love triangles or untrained outsiders who are somehow already elite at [x], the latter of which is particularly egregious here. But even when using tired tropes, Garber consistently turns them in interesting directions, taking great care in the thematic resonance between the magical world she’s built and the real world that inspires it. There are some wobbles—some rushed interpersonal development in the third act, an unexplained ability that arises precisely when the plot needs it—but Garber has plenty to say, and she says it in such an utterly compelling way that it’s easy to overlook the few flaws. I’m already looking for an opportunity to squeeze the sequel into an overstuffed reading schedule.
Lobizona is not the book for a reader who wants to be kept guessing about major plot points—as I said, one major reveal is in the title, and I could guess a second with a good hundred pages to spare—but it has so much to offer a reader looking for a well-crafted young adult fantasy: an immersive world, an emotional punch, and plenty of thematic depth. I’m disappointed that it wasn’t nominated for this year’s Lodestar Award for Best YA Novel, where it would’ve easily been in the top half of my ballot.
Recommended if you like: hidden worlds, magic schools, hefty themes.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Found Family and also works for Latin American Author, Witches (emphatically not hard mode), and Forest Setting.
Overall rating: 17 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads.