Author: Romina Garber
Genre: Young Adult/Contemporary/Fantasy
Version: ebook – ARC
Page Count: 400
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Add To-Read on: GoodReads, StoryGraph
Notable Notables: Latinx cast of characters, Argentine culture and folklore, the immigrant experience, feminist commentary
Recommended Readers: Those who’ve been waiting to see real Spanish on the page and fans of werewolves and witches
Thank you to NetGalley for providing this ARC and to Wednesday Books for asking me to participate in the Blog Tour in exchange for an honest review.
Some people ARE illegal.
Lobizonas do NOT exist.
Both of these statements are false.
Manuela Azul has been crammed into an existence that feels too small for her. As an undocumented immigrant who’s on the run from her father’s Argentine crime-family, Manu is confined to a small apartment and a small life in Miami, Florida.
Until Manu’s protective bubble is shattered.
Her surrogate grandmother is attacked, lifelong lies are exposed, and her mother is arrested by ICE. Without a home, without answers, and finally without shackles, Manu investigates the only clue she has about her past—a mysterious “Z” emblem—which leads her to a secret world buried within our own. A world connected to her dead father and his criminal past. A world straight out of Argentine folklore, where the seventh consecutive daughter is born a bruja and the seventh consecutive son is a lobizón, a werewolf. A world where her unusual eyes allow her to belong.
As Manu uncovers her own story and traces her real heritage all the way back to a cursed city in Argentina, she learns it’s not just her U.S. residency that’s illegal. . . .it’s her entire existence.
Lobizona by Romina Garber covers a variety of angles and experiences, and for that reason, it’s a somewhat tricky novel for me to review. Allow me to state early on that my rating is much closer to 3.5 stars than 4—but I believe in rounding up half ratings and have always done so with other books in the past. The things that Lobizona does well, I was incredibly endeared to, but there were also many elements that I either didn’t care for or left little impression on me.
At its heart, Lobizona is about the Latinx immigrant experience in America and how the experience—while shared—is ultimately different for each generation of a Latinx family. For instance, Manu’s mother Soledad, who brings Manu to America when Manu is a child, faces a different set of struggles than Manu even though they share the same fear of being deported. Soledad had to sacrifice her dream of practicing in the medical field, so she and Manu could be safe—and presumably so Manu could have a better life. Manu grows up with greater, stronger ties to America and its culture than she does to Argentina, which Soledad and their fellow Argentine immigrant Perla can only share with her through language and stories.
And each in their own ways, Manu, Soledad, and even Perla by association find themselves caught between two worlds—well, make that three: Argentina, America, and the mystical Lunaris. It’s this pull and tug, this question of belonging, of where home truly is that Garber demonstrates with aplomb in Lobizona, which makes sense given Garber’s own personal experiences.
We also have the discourse that is at the heart of every immigration conversation: the illegal immigrant and what the repercussions are when you view a fellow human being as being illegal, as if you’re debating whether they have a right to exist the same as you. Readers are being asked to examine that as we follow Manu, who has been declared “an illegal” for different reasons by the U.S. government and the Septimus, which is both the people and ruling body of Lunaris. Yet Manu is also a teenage girl who just wants to have normal teenage experiences: a school to attend, friends to hang out with, a first crush, freedom.
The emphasis on cracking down upon illegal immigration in America has done its far share of fostering xenophobia within the nation. Politicians like to create an “Us versus Them” mentality and encourage that we view people who look or sound different than us as Others. It’s much harder to do that when you can empathize with people instead. When you can see their dreams, hopes, and desires reflected in your own. As a white, native-born American, I can’t identify with or claim any part of Manu’s experience as an Argentine immigrant, but I can understand her heart and what she wants. At the same time, I can’t ignore the privileges that my citizen status and my skin color give me that make it much easier for me to achieve my dreams over Manu achieving hers. The playing field is nowhere close to level, and Lobizona demonstrates that point in both overt and subtle ways throughout. It’s in the characters’ fear of law enforcement and how Manu especially has to hold herself back and make herself smaller to keep from being noticed.
Every scene that involved the ICE gave me chills and churned my stomach. The dread and fear roll off the page, and it’s impossible to not be affected by it. If prior to reading this book you didn’t know that the U.S.’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement is a despicable agency devoid of empathy, then you will probably gain a better understanding of them here. I find them antithetical to the ideals this country claims to uphold, not to mention going against everything that lovely poem says on the Statue of Liberty. You know the one.
However, it isn’t all hardship and despair. Much of Lobizona is also about rebellion, especially against the unfair and the unjust. There’s a certain rebellion that happens when you’re proud about who you are and where you come from when it’s not the dominant culture. As a result, Garber has poured so much Argentine joy into her work. It’s in the loving descriptions of food and drink. It’s in the emphasis about family and community and folklore. It’s in the full-blown Spanish that appears on the page by an actual Spanish-speaking writer, not someone who’s relying on their long-ago high school classes, Google translate, and a prayer.
Then, there’s the characters, starting with Manu. She is a malleable character to start with, and a large part of her journey is her figuring out how to take the path she wants rather than go along with everyone else for x, y, z reason. Hers is a journey of discovering independence along with what her role is within a community and how she can shape it for the better. Of discovering what she truly wants and where she belongs.
That isn’t to say her character isn’t frustrating at times. I found myself at odds with many of her choices the further the book went, but I can’t ignore that she’s young, sheltered, and suddenly on her own, and who can’t sympathize with that? I think I was so frustrated because I was rooting for her so bad that I made myself impatient for her to take the reins and create the life she wants for herself. I’m invested in Manu, but in truth, she’s not where the majority of my investment is anymore.
That would be Saysa and Catalina. Saysa has that blend of kindness that also possesses a backbone of steel. Catalina, meanwhile, has an emotional iciness that puts a barrier between her and others, but it comes from a place of wanting to protect herself and others because she feels so much yet so much is also expected of her. I’d read more about both of them, especially Saysa, who is here to get so much stuff done. I really liked them both as individuals but also together in every facet of their relationship. I loved seeing friends and loved ones support and respect each other while not being afraid to argue or voice separate opinions and still be able to talk to each other after the fact.
Tiago, on the other hand, I have mixed feelings about. There are facets about him that I liked—such as the fact that he’s a big reader and collects banned texts—but so much of him is devoted to being Manu’s love interest, and I did not care for their romance at all. Unlike Manu, I find his indecisiveness to be extremely unattractive, and I also got really tired of hearing how musical his voice sounds every time he speaks. Their friendship is interesting, and I wouldn’t have minded seeing their relationship progress to romance organically. What actually happened was far too fast and literal instalove as Manu herself declares she’s in love with him despite only knowing him for a month. Her mother’s romance with Fierro—which was only seen in disjointed flashbacks—was more engaging.
The entire time, the tension between Manu and Tiago only stems from Tiago already being in a relationship with Catalina. Eventually, the situation has light shed on it, but I really disliked reading a romance for most of the book that read like cheating but also “we just can’t help ourselves.” This situation turned me off from the whole thing, and with more books to come, I can’t help wondering, where is left for Manu and Tiago’s romance to go? We blazed through it at lightning speed. I know Latinx readers haven’t had their share of seeing themselves portrayed in YA romance nor the terrible tropes like instalove that can come with it. That doesn’t mean writers should be lazy with romance, either, and that’s a true statement I express across the board. Not everything has to be a slowburn and some things shouldn’t be, but at least give us something to believe in and also invest in. This just wasn’t it.
Carlos and Jazmín can choke, too, but that’s about all I have to say about them or anyone else. No other characters made much impression on me. Well, okay, one other one did, but that’s a spoiler.
The pacing was also not the best. I was engaged with the first third or so. When I wasn’t busy being intrigued with the mystery behind Manu’s existence along with her, I was being pulled into the tense atmosphere or the sudden, frantic action of the story.
Then came Manu’s entrance to El Laberinto and its academy, where I perked up even more… only for my excitement to wane as nothing much happened when there should’ve been given the circumstances behind Manu arriving there. I enjoyed learning about the world building alongside Manu, and I loved that everyone had glowing eyes that reacted to their powers. That’s my jam always! But Manu’s fear of being discovered meant she took a backseat on most things—or tried to—so things weren’t as exciting as they could’ve been if she had been in a position to participate earnestly. I understood her predicament and enjoyed seeing how she evaded detection at first, but then the incompetency of the teachers and Cazadores became too comical to believe.
The entire time, I couldn’t help but wonder, Manu, girl, what about your mom? How are you here having minimal fun at magic school when your mom’s in the situation she’s in? I felt such an urgency to what was going on in the human world that I became impatient with Manu and her insistence on staying in El Laberinto. Once she learns and reveals that she’s a lobizona instead of a bruja—not exactly a spoiler since the title sadly gives it away—I thought the pace would pick up again, but it continued to wane. In fact, I became more frustrated than ever.
I soon realized after this that I had been much more interested in the brujas and their magic over the lobizones. Manu switching to lobizón lessons was a bore for me. I have personally never been into werewolves very much. They’re easily some of my least favorite magical creatures to read about, but I was excited to have my mind changed here since these werewolves are attached to Argentine culture and form half of a unique society.
Unfortunately, they don’t stand out that much or seem too remarkably different from any other brand of werewolf out there. They still have an alpha wolf (no mention of betas or omegas) and a pack mentality that has never resonated with me in any way. They play an extremely rough sport called Septibol, which strikes me as a blend of soccer and rugby, and they’re meant to protect the brujas when they travel to the dangerous world of Lunaris every full moon.
This is where the worst thing about these werewolves—and the Septimus society at large— comes into play: everything is built on a gender binary that is loaded with sexism and misogyny. Only lobizones can play on the Septibol field, while brujas must say on the sidelines “for their safety” as they use magic to influence the game. No bruja can go unescorted outside of the Citadel while in Lunaris; a werewolf must always accompany them. While homosexual relationships aren’t strictly forbidden by law, same-sex marriages aren’t allowed in Septimus society, because everyone has to pair up and make babies. Even being infertile is a cause for disgrace and arrest. Everything is about reproduction for the survival of the species. And boy, do I hate that.
It’s a rare day that I pick up a book with a fantasy element where I also want to read about sexism and misogyny in said fantasy world. When Lobizona settled on this route, I felt like it was taking on too much at once without giving every issue proper space and nuance. Reading about Manu’s immigrant experience—first in America and then as it related to Lunaris—was poignant. Reading about how unfair it was that boys play a sport that girls can’t, and there needs to be a gender revolution because of it was kinda juvenile. To be clear, the gender issues brought up in this book are serious ones in real life; it’s just that whenever the characters bring them up, the dialogue surrounding them in the text feels incredibly heavy-handed. I had thought once Manu became a lobizona and essentially broke the gender binary as a result, we would get somewhere deeper, but, well…
Since so much of the gender and misogyny discussion centers around Septibol, I considered that it’s likely related to the message about how lauded men’s sports teams are in Argentina and the U.S. (and the rest of the world) while women’s sports teams are largely underfunded and underpaid despite being made of athletes who usually perform better and accomplish greater feats with little recognition. This view of women—of the skills they have and the results they produce—as being lesser than men doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It all stems from a deeper place. All women have felt the effects of sexism in our day-to-day lives, some worse than others depending on the culture and society.
I just really, really, really, really didn’t want to read about it right now in a YA fantasy book with witches and werewolves. This was an extra contemporary element that took me out of the magic that Garber was trying to create. Sure, maybe she was trying to show the reader and Manu that no place is perfect, that you will probably encounter new problems by trying to run away from your old ones, which is a great message to have. But I rather felt like Manu had plenty of old and new problems to be dealing with without needing to overthrow the patriarchy, too.
This problem is just a personal reading preference of mine; there have been few fiction books with worlds built on sexism and misogyny that I have enjoyed, and no, The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t one of them. That honor might actually go solely to We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia.
Finally, there’s the too many Harry Potter references. Listen, I am a big fan of Harry Potter (Slytherin House is best house), but I did not care for the constant comparisons Lobizona made to it. Especially given J.K. Rowling’s recent transphobic statements when Lobizona is attempting a feminist narrative, but I recognize that book has been finished well before anything could be done to remove these comparisons. I know how to separate art from the artist and in fact do so every day with many creations, but I know some people “can’t” do that or refuse to, so I hope this doesn’t hurt the book and this series in the future. I hope people still give it a chance because there’s a lot about it I think readers will love, both the same things I did and the things I didn’t.
I acknowledge that Garber was doing it as a fan of Harry Potter herself, and she was likely making these comparisons as a form of self-awareness of the tropes her book shares with Harry Potter: a seemingly ordinary girl thrown into a world of magic with no prior knowledge about it; a magical school; a separate world from the mundane human world; witches and werewolves; truth potions and a magical sport; etc. I also acknowledge that, as a Latinx immigrant who grows up in a different culture, you have to assimilate a bit to that culture if you want to get its references. The U.S. culture largely doesn’t know any Argentine stories, but they certainly know Harry Potter.
However, it’s for that very reason that I wish Garber had included more Argentine literature in her book rather than having Manu constantly compare her life to Harry Potter and also Elizabeth Bennet. I wish Cien Años de Soledad had been integrated much more strongly in their places instead, given it’s a story Manu has interesting ties about with her mother. That isn’t to say I have a right or a demand to be told that story. I just hope if Garber wishes to share more Argentine stories and folklore that she will feel confident that she can do so even more than she already has and can trust that her readers will keep reading. I’m definitely a person where I would rather read or learn something new than be told the same things over and over. That’s a large reason why I pick up diverse books; the unfamiliar in this case isn’t intimidating but warmly welcomed.
Currently, I am open to continuing this series, particularly if Garber leans further into her strengths and those of her characters while developing the story’s weaker elements more. I’d like to see Manu with a new direction, one of determination. I’d like to see what her and Tiago are like past the growing pains of whatever this book’s romance was. I’d like to see what a female werewolf is capable of in a world determined to keep her in line. I’d like to see where Saysa and Catalina will grow and where their paths will take them. I want to at last see this cursed city in Argentina the synopsis hinted at that we never got to. And if we must have a revolution over who has a right to exist that also includes eliminating sexism, then I hope it’s one treated with care toward a brighter, more inclusive future.
ROMINA GARBER (pen name Romina Russell) is a New York Times and international bestselling author. Originally from Argentina, she landed her first writing gig as a teen—a weekly column for the Miami Herald that was later nationally syndicated—and she hasn’t stopped writing since. Her books include Lobizona. When she’s not working on a novel, Romina can be found producing movie trailers, taking photographs, or daydreaming about buying a new drum set. She is a graduate of Harvard College and a Virgo to the core.