Clockwork Curandera: The Witch Owl Parliament

Cristina Franco is a curandera, a Latina natural healer, in training. She and her brother Enrique live in the colonial Mexico province of Santander in a steampunk reality where dirigibles and robots coexist with mythical creatures. When Cristina is attacked and killed by a parliament of witch owls, Enrique cannot accept her death. He repairs her body with robot limbs and restores her to life. Enrique’s actions use a combination of Islamic alchemy and other magic and prove controversial to the very Catholic community. Cristina must hide her robotic limbs as she continues to fight the witch owls. Meanwhile, she attracts the attention of Matteo, a shapeshifter who wants to both help her and court her. Enrique’s backstory shows him in love with a fellow male student prior to immigrating to the new world. This first volume of Clockwork Curandera sets up the brother and sister to face off against many forces in their world as the series continues.

End-matter includes an all-text prequel which describes Cristina’s training as a curandera. This helps explain the background of that profession, especially for those unfamiliar with it. An author’s note follows which relates the author’s experience with these healers during his childhood on the Texas-Mexico border. He shares how this experience birthed the idea for a story a la Frankenstein, where a curandera has become a cyborg and must deal with the implications of her connection to nature being disrupted. Also included in the end-matter are in-process sketches of Raul the Third’s art for the book. 

The art is pen and ink style with occasional red accents. This has the striking effect of highlighting certain elements such as the scar on Cristina’s cheek or her robotic arm. The illustrations are meant for a more sophisticated reader, as a great deal takes place in the images. They can be a bit difficult to interpret. The witch owls do not closely resemble actual birds, nor do some of the other elements look extremely obvious. The largely black tone makes the whole universe of the book seem rather dark. The pages are given a parchment look to fit the time period, as well. 

Clockwork Curandera: The Witch Owl Parliament is a story which raises many interesting questions. What does it mean to be human? What types of intervention in the natural world are acceptable? What role should religion play in our lives? These are questions a mature reader will contemplate while reading this book. However, the book isn’t accessible to everyone. It is definitely meant for a sophisticated reader with an appreciation for the graphic novel as an art form. For those who take the time and effort to engage with Cristina in her quest, the rewards are many, and the reader will look forward to future installments in the series.

Clockwork Curandera: The Witch Owl Parliament Vol. 1
By David Bowles
Art by  Raul The Third
Abrams, 2021
ISBN: 9781620145920

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  Mexican-American,  Character Representation: Mexican,

Hotel Dare

Hotel Dare tells us that family are the ones you fight for. The story comes out swinging, with newly adopted Charlotte explaining she beat up a kid at school because he was saying things about her family. As eldest sister Olive points out, everything the kid said is true, the siblings don’t look alike at all and Olive is queer. Still, it’s this fighting nature, and the notion that how you protect your family won’t always be popular with them, that holds the story together. Hotel Dare offers a number of ways for families to fall apart, from the space pirate Mila being exiled from their world for who they love, to Mamá Lupe neglecting her son while she lookes for her lost husband in the magical worlds. Amidst strife there’s always the hope for love triumphing.

Olive, Darwin, and Charlotte are spending their summer with their abuela in Mexico at the Hotel Dare. It looms on the first page in a splash of boxy house shapes cobbled together and teetering at the highest levels, connected by rope ladders. Olive has an ulterior motive to their trip: to discover why it is their father and Mamá Lupe are estranged, what fight it was that separated them. Mamá Lupe makes it clear they’re there to help her clean and fix up the hotel, but softens her expectations with conchas, hot chocolate, and several days of the siblings lounging around the house. 

Once the work gets underway, they split up to clean three separate rooms and simultaneously discover three closets leading to three different fantasy worlds. Olive is in a wizarding world where she finds herself comforting Brad, a muscled apprentice with chiseled features and long flowing blond locks crushed by his hideous inability to grow a beard, the most important status symbol of his world. Darwin, who almost never speaks in the real world, is drawn into a world of cotton candy colors and fluff juxtaposed with dark black glass. A fuzzy floating creature befriends him. Charlotte finds a world of space pirates and opportunities to put her tinkering abilities to good use. None of the worlds are quite what they appear and the siblings find out many family secrets as they begin to understand everything Mamá Lupe has been hiding in the Hotel Dare.

Terry Blas’s writing in Hotel Dare spins out character development and action in well measured doses. We never find out much about the siblings’ pasts, beyond Charlotte and Darwin having come from orphanages. What’s important is how they act now in preserving or stressing their family. The worlds they end up in tell us more about their inner struggles and identities. Mamá Lupe’s past is fully developed, a beautiful homage to a love of fantasy stories and Mexican history and mythology. Not to mention Mamá Lupe has led a pretty badass adventure-packed life in the many worlds. Blas weaves themes of isolation, gender, justice, and bigotry into the story. There’s a lot of the plot I’m leaving out so you’ll get to enjoy it unfolding, you’ll just have to trust me. The only weakness in the book is that it ends much too soon. You will feel like there should be a sequel before you realize that the resolution is already there, you just didn’t get to experience the fallout and emotional work still to come for the characters. You want more time with the characters. The kind of longing only great books can bring. 

Claudia Aguirre’s art is dynamic and busy, colors and shapes often crammed in like the erratic rooflines of the Hotel Dare. Sometimes the panels slant and crash under the action. The faces are cartoonish with crystal clear emotions, touching on the human core of the fantasy story. Color palettes and background art styles create the character of the different worlds, cool toned soaring fantasy for the wizard world, soft warm colors and childish shapes for Darwin’s world and geometric metallic settings for the space pirates. These divisions are necessary to help the reader navigate the story as it frequently switches between the different worlds. In every world, even ours, there’s always a sense of something glowing that makes Hotel Dare feel alive in your hands. 

I’m reaching back a bit for this review; Hotel Dare was published three years ago. It’s an often overlooked gem that features a Latinx cast, LGBTQ issues, and the kind of fantasy multiple dimension world building that never goes out of style. I breathlessly tore through the advance reader copy, pushed it in booktalks, and for years have worn a pin on my lanyard like the mysterious one discovered in Mamá Lupe’s office. If you missed it, I hope you’ll take a second look for your collections and programming. Hotel Dare has a place in any children’s collection. There are no content issues, but upper elementary and tween students will get more from the nuances of the family dynamics. Hand it to kids reading 5 Worlds, Star Scouts, and Lumberjanes. Chapter book fans of Dragons in a Bag and visitors to Narnia, Neverland, and other magical portals will also find a lot to love. 

Hotel Dare 
By Terry Blas
Art by  Claudia Aguirre
BOOM! KaBOOM!, 2019
ISBN: 9781684152056

Publisher Age Rating: 9-11

NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation: Mexican-American, Queer
Character Representation: Mexican-American, Queer

Onion Skin

“The onion serves to season and enhance the flavor of other foods. I guess sometimes people are like onions. We complement each other and bring out the flavors that make us who we are.”

Onion Skin opens with food flying across the page as a food truck flies through the page chased by motorcycles. Then we meet Rolando. After an “accident” at work, Rolando has lost direction. He soon meets Nera who lives in a non-working food truck in a junkyard. One thing leads to another, and despite their lack of knowledge or know-how, Rolando and Nera fix the truck and start cooking. Their food truck, the Dawgburger, quickly grows a large following as they travel through Mexico, thanks to seasoning from two plants left to Nera by her grandmother.

Onion Skin, by Edgar Camacho, was originally written in Spanish and published in Mexico in 2016, where it won the first National Young Graphic Novel Award. This book, which celebrates the cuisine of Mexico in muted colors, was a hit there, and I imagine will be a hit here as well.

Camacho’s distinctive loose sketch style is worthy of praise, and I was often drawn to the unique details of the page that I might have overlooked in a more traditional tight comic illustration. One image in particular toward the beginning of the book struck me. The panel illustration shows a plate of half-eaten chilaquiles. In front of the plate sits Rolando’s discarded glasses, and in the reflection we see his frustration and tears.

Camacho also twists the traditional use of panels with the occasional word or limb that escapes the border or the use of multiple panels to break up a single image. These moments were as much of a treat as the delicious illustrations of food.

However, I was most intrigued by his narrative style. Much like onion skin, this story is told in multiple layers. The narrative alternates between two transitional moments in their relationship – the events leading to their first run in the food truck, and the events that eventually lead to the dramatic chase from the beginning of the book. The alternating scenes end in alternating panels. Each layer is different but parallel.

As the story progresses and action builds, the alternating scenes build tension and feel fast-paced, sure to capture the reader’s attention. At the same time, by creating parallels in the narrative, we are also given the opportunity to explore the evolution of character and relationships.

Onion Skin is a recommended purchase for any public library or high school library collection, especially collections where narrative graphic novels are popular.  There isn’t any content in the book that regulates it to adults, but the target audience is adults, and it would fit in the adult collection of a public library. However, this story about breaking free, exploring new ideas, and traveling the country will also appeal to teens who are ready to do the same. 

Onion Skin
By Edgar Camacho
Top Shelf Productions, 2021
ISBN: 9781603094894

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Mexican,
Character Representation: Mexican,

Rise of the Halfling King: Tales of the Feathered Serpent

Mystical elfin beings, a monster serpent, a boy with a magical birth, a vengeful king, even a sweet monkey sidekick, this first in a new series of Mesoamerican-inspired graphic novels has fantasy action covered. Acclaimed author and teacher David Bowles provides the story while the art is by his daughter, Charlene Bowles, in her graphic novel debut. 

It’s a hard book to sum up, each piece of the tale is woven inextricably into the next. Set a thousand years ago in the Yucatan peninsula, the story follows Almah as she goes from a young woman seeking a powerful token from the jungle realm of the aluxes to a witch who has helped her town grow and prosper. But the aluxes also gifted her a special drum that would announce a new king of the Uxmal. She hides the drum and a cruel king rises up, one who tells the people they only need the king’s priests and they must forget the aluxes and shun the witches. Almah prays to the Goddess Ixchel about her deep loneliness and finds a strange egg on a walk in the hills. A baby hatches from the egg, growing into a young boy, but never aging past that. The boy, Sayam, learns Almah’s traditional magic and a prophecy has him squaring off against the cruel king in a special trial.

The story comes from the author’s YA-aimed Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico. The Maya culture becomes a living, fully developed world in the graphic novel, full of lush colors and a great combination of iconography and realism. The cities, the agriculture, and the writing system are highlighted. The blend of religion and magical creatures creates an exciting power source that today’s readers of Greek myth-inspired fare will love. The aluxes are said to have gone in hiding when humans appeared, living thousands of years and shepherding magic. Shown shorter than our heroine, Almah, they have rounded features and intricate costumes that recall real Maya artifacts. David Bowles plan to portray the cohesive and vibrant mythological world of the Maya is very well executed.

The book is as fun to read as it is culturally enriching. Due to its focus on legend-building, the characters don’t have a lot of depth or development on their own, what we learn in the short descriptions of the cast list at the start is thorough. They stand in for common character types: wise and faithful Almah, hardworking and precocious Sayam, ruthless sorcerer Zaatan Ik. You still come to care about the characters and cheer on their successes. Their interactions feel realistic. Charlene Bowles’ gets a lot of emotion out of her modern cartoonish style, with angular faces and thick lines that are similar to standard realistic middle grade graphic novels. The build of the story and the action that comes from the many magical trials and tribulations is more than enough to make the book engrossing. The art has a sense of movement and glowing life that jumps off the page.

As with the mythology and fairytales of most cultures, there are some dark concepts in Rise of the Halfling King. A giant serpent eats the mummified dead of a village and is put down in an attack that is gory in theory. The experience of reading that section was fun and thrilling rather than frightening, it was only in looking back over the book a few times that I realized just how dark an episode it was. It has some slapstick moments, full of sound effects, and comes off as a suspenseful but action-packed time. The moody purples and grays of the underground mausoleum and the snake provide the appropriate dread, but Sayam, Almah and the clever but clumsy spider monkey Maax pull the reader along in a way that will not freak out the young readers it’s aimed at.

The publisher’s age range of 8-13 feels true, with a rich enough world to interest the older of that range but a brightness that still works for the younger. The page count is low and and the story flies by, when the series reaches the ten volumes David Bowles plans in his post script it will make a satisfying stack for many a fantasy and myth-loving reader.

Rise of the Halfling King: Tales of the Feathered Serpent
By David Bowles
Art by Charlene Bowles
ISBN: 9781947627376
Cinco Puntos Press, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 8-13
Series ISBNS and Order

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Creator Highlights: Mexican-American
Related to…: Book to Comic


StrongmanEl Tigre is not the hero he used to be. It’s been thirty years since his heyday, and he is a shadow of the great fighter that he used to be. He has run from Mexico, the country he loved and swore to protect, to become an alcoholic punching bag for amateur wrestlers. El Tigre was going to blearily continue down this path, until news brought to him by a desperate young woman stirs him out of his stupor and back into action.

This comic has every right to be amazing. It’s a redemption tale inter-cut with stories of the past, it has a unique premise, and great characters. But despite all of that, Strongman fell short of its promises. Take El Tigre, who doesn’t love a redemption tale? We’re ready for this man to remember the titan he was and stand up for the little man of the burrio again. As he finds his way toward that path, there is a great commitment to never allow Tigre to take off his luchador mask. Even as he’s wallowing in the middle of a trashed apartment, he is El Tigre. It’s a very striking image. However, when El Tigre takes to the streets, the comic goes easy on the reader. The most obvious problem is no one mentions that El Tigre is wearing a mask. People remark on his size, and poor state, but only two people in the comic seem to realize that the weirdest thing about El Tigre’s appearance is that in the middle of New York, this guy is walking around with a luchador’s mask on like it’s a baseball cap. I’m not holding a vendetta against masks, there are just no cues from the art or words as to whether or not the reader is supposed to feel this is intentional, or as misplaced as it feels.

Masks aside, El Tigre is no Sherlock. When it comes to tracking down the criminal who is trafficking human body parts, Tigre has to find one bar (which he is told) and ask two people. The first person he didn’t even have to threaten, and the second that’s all he did. I’m not an expert in illegal pushing, but if that is all I had to do to find the head of a criminal operation? I’d be rethinking my employees.

The story continues like that. El Tigre is overwrought in his sense of justice. Its as if he flipped on a switch he forgot he had over the past 3 decades. He doesn’t carry a sense of gray into battle, there is just what is right, and what is wrong. He is full of all of the bad one-liners you would expect from a pro-wrestler, and delivers right in the face of the bad guy. Speaking of him, he is so decidedly evil, it stops being fun at some point. The comic started with a promise of exploring a unique character in a realistic setting. But Tigre becomes the epitome of all things good, and the bad guy is so ludicrously evil the reader has no hope of empathizing with him.

All of this is completely unfair to the reader. As these revelations are disappointing, different story points keep coming up that make the narrative potentially compelling. I can’t specify what happens without throwing out the baby and bath water, but there are about three different instances in the comic where I felt driven to read more because the author had tossed in an authentically interesting twist.

Out of everything, I certainly can’t complain about the art. It is rendered in grayscale, line and tone, and is completely serviceable. The book is only eight or nine inches high, and most pages have six or more panels on them, which keeps the art pretty small. That said, it is still very legible. It’s a shame that the art isn’t given more room to breathe, but it does make the reading face paced.

Strongman had the potential to hit on so many levels, it is frustrating to see it fall short. It feels as if you could rub out a couple word balloons and cut out some of the extra cheesiness to the story, it hit you right in the emotional gut. As it stands, it falls squarely in the middle of success, a rank that does not befit a grand character such as El Tigre.

by Charles Soule
Art by Allan Gladfelter
ISBN: 978-159362152
SLG, 2009
Publisher Age Rating: OT (16 )