Leonora Logroño is desperate to convince her mother that she’s old enough to finally help out at her family’s bakery as they prepare for the big yearly Dia de los Muertos festival. She’s crushed to hear she’s still too young, but even more surprised to find out that the women in her family are secretly magical baking brujas. She just has to tell her best friend, and that leads to just one tiny spell…
These days I have an entire shelf devoted to diverse MG fantasy novels, and it brings me such joy to see titles and new series coming out every year. Fantasy literature was a passion I discovered in elementary school, and a big disappointment as a school librarian was not being able to find books representing every student for genre literature.
Leo has four sisters, a pet, a best friend, many other classmates, and of course her parents and extended family. With a large cast, especially four older sisters, it’s unusual to see an author take the time to develop each character. While they did have a bit of the common “responsible oldest sibling, rebellious second born,” I appreciated that Meriano humanized all of the sisters beyond the trope.
One criticism I saw before reading was that Leo was bratty and written too young -and she is obnoxious. However, I think some reviewers simply aren’t used to large families. The youngest child in a larger family like this gets much more attention (from all the older siblings) and yet often not enough attention (because parents have older siblings to consider). Feelings of never being old enough, always trying to catch up, and constantly getting left behind, are common.
I’ve seen enough children in the same situation to feel that Leo’s character is spot-on. Yes, irritating and an odd mix of mature/naïve. But this will surely resonate with children who have a similar family. Also, by having a fairly flawed main character in the first book, Meriano leaves so much room for natural growth as the series progresses. This sort of bold move can only be risked by an author with an obvious multi-book deal.
Another major point was that the magic systems were too convoluted. Let me break it down (though Leo spends most of the novel figuring this out, so spoilers).
In Leo’s world:
– Magic exists.
– It has a hereditary component and runs in families, though in different ways.
– Leo’s maternal line specifically tied their magic to baking long, long ago, both to strengthen the magic and ensure it is passed down.
– Each woman has had three daughters, who had three daughters, with the magic passing matrilineally.
– Spell casting is done much like baking, with ingredients, process, and intent.
– Like recipes, spells can be written down, but the result might change as subtle things like quality of ingredients or the temperature change.
– Within her family, each person also has a special natural gift tied to their birth order. These manifest around puberty and don’t require spells, although they can take exertion and improve with practice, and spells can be used along with them.
Certainly not a simple system, and further nuances could be explored. (Where are all the cousins? Tía Paloma is single, but did the eldest sister have children?) But it is internally consistent. For two reasons, it makes sense to have such a complicated system of magic. First, if the magic was easy or obvious, there wouldn’t be much to write about! Second, this is very specifically first in a series, down to the number on the spine. At least two more titles remain to explore the magic.
That said, this might not be best for readers new to the fantasy genre, unless they are already interested in other aspects of the story. Also, I don’t see this working as a read-aloud.
A few content warnings. Leo sneaks out of school, steals items for her spells, lies, tries to manipulate people and situations, and uses a love spell without the recipient’s knowledge. These are generally called out within the story, but I found Leo frustrating at times. Children act embarrassingly, get shrunk, and go missing. One of Leo’s sisters is suspected to be (but isn’t) smoking or shoplifting. Characters are able to connect with deceased spirits.
Despite the warnings, I still definitely suggest this, especially for libraries with fantasy fans or a Latinx population. Recommended.