This Lucha of the Night Forest book review takes a look at Tehlor Kay Mejia’s latest novel about a girl who will do anything to protect her sister, even if it means striking a bargain with a sinister god.
As has been the case the last few years, I’ve been leaning into dark fantasy, sci-fi, and horror, but this year, I’ve been especially craving stories about living houses and haunted forests. Luckily, I’ve read some fantastic books that have fallen into those categories, like She Is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran for the former, and Wildblood by Lauren Blackwood for the latter.
Lucha of the Night Forest falls into the second group, and I can safely say that if you enjoyed Wildblood, you’ll definitely enjoy this one. It ticked so many boxes for me—queer romance, a spooky forest, the power of nature, ethereal creatures, a girl who learned how to live while she was just trying to survive, and so many more themes that I’ll get into below with the rest of my Lucha of the Night Forest book review.
But first, let’s start at the beginning. Lucha and her sister Lis live in a town called Robado, which is described as a pit of mud and misery on several occasions, run by a group of people called Los Ricos. The work is exhausting, and it’s nearly impossible just to get by, and that’s without even considering the effect Olvida has on the townspeople.
Olvida is a drug created from the leaves of the Pensa plant. It is highly addictive in its own right, but the most dangerous part is that this drug wipes away your memories. You can understand how much the townspeople of Robado would be drawn to such a thing, and Lucha and Lis’ mother is one of its many victims.
As a result, Lucha has become her mother and sister’s caretaker, forced to grow up much earlier than she should have. Lucha is a complicated heroine, but she is unapologetic about most facets of her character. Forced to survive in a town that has no empathy for her, she did what needed to be done in order to keep her family together.
The driving force of this book is Lucha’s relationship with Lis, and the lengths to which she’ll go in order to save her from the horrors of the world. She is not always successful, and sometimes she makes decisions that serve her own self-interests at the expense of others around her, but at the end of the day, Lucha remains an empathetic character. We can understand her drive to protect her sister, and we can see that she is only human. Would any of us make a different decision if we found ourselves in a similar situation?
What I love most about Lucha is that she’s human—full of conflicting emotions, as fallible as any of the rest of us. There are moments where she reminds me of Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, not only because she’s got a sister to protect, but because she becomes the figurehead of a movement she isn’t sure she cares about. How did she find herself in this position, when all she was trying to do was save her sister from the same fate as her mother?
Lucha’s relationship with a mysterious girl named Paz gives her a sense of hope she never thought she’d feel. Here’s someone who’s beautiful and smart and kind—how could she find anything to love about Lucha’s sharp edges? Their push-and-pull relationship felt painfully realistic, at times overwhelmingly gentle and at others agonizingly tragic. They see the world from two vastly different perspectives, and both are only trying to protect themselves and their secrets. And yet they are inextricably drawn together. Their romance added another layer to this story that pulled me in and refused to let me go.
Lis plays the part of the younger sister, the one who has been sheltered from the world and therefore does not take it as seriously as Lucha would. She is naïve and reckless, but she’s not blind to everything Lucha has done for her over the years. Their relationship is not perfect, with both of them laden with their own baggage, but the love they have for each other cannot be extinguished. Truly, Lucha of the Night Forest is about two sisters who may not always see eye to eye but will always have each other’s backs.
Unfortunately for Lucha, there are greater forces at work here. On the night she thinks she’s lost Lis forever, Lucha taps into a hidden power inside her. Wild with desperation, she makes a deal with El Sediento, a nightmarish creature with red eyes and a wide smile. He is straight out of a horror novel, and I’d be lying if I said his visage didn’t send goosebumps down my arm.
In my interview with Tehlor Kay Mejia for Paola Santiago and the Sanctuary of Shadows, the third and final book in her middle-grade series for the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, they spoke about being an “utter scaredy-cat,” and so I wasn’t prepared for the imagery this book would present. That said, I loved every second of it, which hopefully comes through loud and clear with this Lucha of the Night Forest book review.
This book sets good against evil, but reminds us that there’s a little of both in everyone. While El Sediento commands death, the goddess Almudena breathes life, and it is because of this that they are forever at odds. But this is not a simple story of the Chosen One fighting because destiny commands it; at its foundation, this is a story of choice.
It’s also a story about anger. Lucha has been living her life one day at a time, solving each problem she faces as it rears its ugly head. When has she had time to think about herself, to think about her future? Mejia lets Lucha be selfish and angry and imperfect without making us any less empathetic toward her character. We understand the choices set before her, and we’d understand if she chose the one that kept her and her loved ones safe. To be self-serving is to be human.
Despite the ancient gods and mythical creatures found throughout this book, Lucha of the Night Forest is about people—the good, the bad, and everyone in between. Perhaps some started off innocent and became corrupt, while others tout the sanctity of life in one breath and condemn their neighbors to die in the next. This book has a lot to say about the power of humanity and what kind of person we choose to be. It also has cool mushrooms, and for me, that’s always an added bonus.
As is usually the case, this Lucha of the Night Forest book review is spoiler-free, so I won’t give away the ending other than to say that I don’t think the book could have concluded in any other way. It was a fitting ending, marked with heartbreak and hope, and the world Tehlor Kay Mejia created, as well as the characters who live inside of it, will undoubtedly stay with me for a long time to come.
‘Lucha of the Night Forest’ published on March 21, 2023
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