Thursday, March 25, 2021

SciFi/Fantasy Book Review: Lobizona by Romina Garber


Lobizona is a 2020 young adult fantasy novel by author Romina Garber, featuring as its protagonist an undocumented girl in Miami, part of a family on the run from bad circumstances in Argentina. It's not the first YA fantasy novel I've read featuring fantasy beings as illegal immigrants and ICE as a (side) antagonist, and almost certainly won't be the last given the horrors that have been committed against innocents on the run in the name of immigration enforcement.  Still Lobizona is a book trying to take on far more injustices than just those committed against illegal immigrants and refugees, using its Argentinian-inspired fantasy story to show the injustice of a system devoted to enforcing a strict gender binary, to centering only the heteronormative, and to only accepting a racial purity. 

And while Lobizona is not a subtle book (again, YA), it's a pretty damn incredible one in how it deals with all these issues throughout the course of its story.  The book is clearly at times channeling Harry Potter,* if Harry Potter wasn't dealing with a white-centric, queer-absent world but instead was dealing with a fantasy world and school of Werewolves (Lobizones) and Witches (Brujas).  But not only are Lobizona's characters at least as compelling as Harry Potter ever was, but Garber somehow also manages to weave a plot about the plight of not fitting into the norms of the system - whether that be because one is undocumented, queer/trans, or anything else - that works tremendously well.  The book doesn't quite stick the landing but as it's only the first of a series (second book coming out in June), well I look forward to how it goes from here.  

*I tend to avoid Harry Potter comparisons because honestly, we can do better for comparisons in fantasy books.  But Lobizona's heroine Manu references Harry Potter herself at times, and this book clearly is drawing parallels.  So it can't really be avoided.*

Note: I read this in audiobook and the reader is very good - fittingly the reader is also Argentine, which allows her to read the occasional spanish dialogue and names in a proper Argentine accent, which makes it a really strong way to follow the story.  

----------------------------------------------------Plot Summary------------------------------------------------------
For 17 Years, Manu has lived in hiding, first in Argentina and then in Miami.  They fled Argentina because, according to Manu's mother, Manu's father was murdered by his crime-family, a family who would murder both Manu and her mother if they found them. And so Manu has spent most of her life cooped up in an apartment with her mother and a kind elderly Argentine woman, Perla, hiding from both her father's family and ICE, who might show up at any time to send them back to their deaths.  Manu's mother doesn't even let her go out of the apartment without sunglasses, as her unusual inhuman gold and silver eyes make her clearly stand out...and could alert her father's family to the fact that she exists.  

But when Perla suffers an injury and Manu's mother is caught in an ICE Raid, fate and desperation brings Manu to a strange place inside the Florida Everglades - a place where she finds the last thing she expected: a school with teens with eyes just like her own.  It is a school for girls who are Brujas (Witches) and boys who are Lobizones (Werewolves), from a world that Manu has only seen in her dreams during the full moon.  For Manu, the chance to go to an actual school, possibly to have real friends, and to learn about who she really is is something she never could have expected.  

But it soon becomes clear to Manu that her father came from something far different than a human crime family and that, if her half-human heritage is ever discovered, this new magical world would turn on her just as the human would has.  And without the knowledge she might've gained growing up in this culture, can she really fit in long enough to figure out who she herself is before she's discovered?
Lobizona tells a powerful story that is a tale of the plight of having one's very existence be declared "illegal" or "undocumented" - something that happens to Manu in both the human and the magical world (where hybrids are illegal and must be killed).  In the human world, Manu is essentially an illegal refugee, who is forced to hide in her closed apartment and not to live for fear of being sent back by ICE to Argentina (a country she only knows from stories).  In the fantasy world of Lunaris, Manu is just as illegal - as mixed-race beings (or "Hybrids", as this book calls it) are not allowed, and are punishable by death if discovered.  As such, Lobizona doesn't ever give Manu just the escape of many portal fantasies and is all the more powerful for it, by showing Manu's plight might be different in flavor but is always the same in form: a constant fear that she can't simply live for who she is, because to do so openly will result in discovery and death, for no fault of her own.

This story also is telling a story that features challenges to a culture with a strict gender binary and heteronormative perspective and is very much a queer and really a trans allegory.  Manu winds up being a "Lobizona*" (a female werewolf) in a world where there are no such things, with all girls being Brujas and all boys being Lobizones.  As such for Manu to be a Lobizona means that she winds up in classes with all the boys (to learn how to use her werewolf powers) and is even allowed on the Septibol (soccer) field, which is limited only to wolves...and thus usually men.  This is all in a fantasy world where the species has strict rules regarding gender roles, requiring only heterosexual relationships to ensure maximum procreation (and girls are required to have at least 2-3 kids), all of which makes not only Manu's very existence a shock, but a direct challenge to the established order.  And naturally it's a challenge that a lot of people, such as anyone who might not fit the cis-heteronorm, might have a lot riding on, which puts even heavier pressure on Manu.  

*This is technically a spoiler, and one of the few faults of this book is that it takes forever to reveal this fact, despite the fact that not only is this revealed in the book's back cover plot summary, but it's in the VERY TITLE of the book, so I don't feel bad revealing it here.*    

Lobizona is absolutely not subtle about these themes, with characters sometimes giving entire speeches about the choices and philosophies of the people who are forced into the situations presented - Manu's two friends Cata and Saysa basically act as her shoulder angel (in favor of hiding who she is for safety) and devil (in favor of proudly showcasing her identity to make a case for change).  But despite it sometimes getting into speechifying, it all works, mainly because Manu and her friends are all truly compelling and believable characters.  Saysa and Cata for example aren't just plot devices to provide Manu with her options of what to do, but have their own identities and backstories and relationships outside of Manu, making it so easy to care about both of them (and their own relationship is really great).  The same is true for the love interest, Tiago, who is also really great as this supposedly perfect wolf who...doesn't really want to be the prodigy or leader that everyone wants him to be.  And even the rest of the cast, from the minor character friends Manu makes to the minor character antagonists all have personalities that work and make sense and make me interested in seeing more of them to see where they are going.  

This leads to a plot that starts out being very predictable - if still really powerful - and yet in the final third takes a number of really surprising but strong plot turns.  Garber has a stronger understanding of some of the implications of common fantasy tropes you'd expect to occur, and tries to avoid some of the worst versions of them, and the plot is all the better for it.*  This allows the plot to work really well and to flow naturally from all the characters' motivations from beginning to end.  It doesn't quite stick the landing - the ending revolves around one sudden reveal that just feels weak because the book doesn't pose any alternate possibilities as well as one late power reveal that seems to come out of nowhere.  

*Spoiler in ROT13: Sbe rknzcyr, va n pynffvp gebcr frghc, Znah svaqf urefrys pyrneyl nf gur fpubby'f orfg bcgvba sbe Xrrcre va gur snagnfl irefvba bs Fbppre, naq gur pbnpu nfxf gb chg ure va sbe gur 2aq unys, juvpu jbhyq znxr ure gur svefg tvey gb cynl ba gur svryq.  Lbh jbhyq rkcrpg ure gb gnxr gur bccbeghavgl gb fubj bss gung n tvey pbhyq qb vg, va fcvgr bs jung fbzr bs gur punhivavfgvp zra zvtug guvax, gb pneir n cynpr sbe urefrys va fbpvrgl.  Ohg Znah ernyvmrf gung gb cebir gung fur'f jbegul whfg orpnhfr fur'f tbbq ng fcbegf vfa'g ernyyl znxvat n pnfr sbe rdhnyvgl, naq gung rkcbfvat urefrys ol cynlvat, rira vs vg jbhyq srry tbbq, vfa'g ernyyl znxvat gur pnfr fur jnagf...fb fur qrpyvarf, rira vs gung srrqf vagb gur rtb bs bar bs gur thlf jub unf ora nohfvir. 

But overall the plot works, the themes are discussed and play out in fascinating ways and the characters are just tremendous so I just want more of them.  Thankfully, a sequel is coming out in June....and I was lucky enough to be provided with a prerelease copy.  It's going to be very difficult not to dive into that one as soon as possible, because I just want to see desperately how things play out from here.  

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