Vampires. If you look at the roots of SFF, there they are, firmly tucked into the same literary movement as Frankenstein and other pivotal works of supernatural storytelling. And going further back, stories of creatures that feed on human blood or tissue are widespread. Not universal, but about as close as stories come. They represent a core fear of humanity. Of the night. Of the Other. Of hunger. In popular SFF, vampires haven't lost their appeal. From Dracula to Twilight, Lestat to the world of Anita Blake, vampires are still alive and well...er, undead and well. And Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia takes the mythology of a dozen different vampire legends and merges them into a thrilling, slightly romantic, incredibly gritty adventure through an alternate Mexico City.
The story flits between a number of characters as they move about their lives and their missions in Mexico. And all of them, from the vampires to the humans, navigate hunger. For me, it's hunger that is central to the novel, and perhaps not surprising given it features vampires, who are often depicted as slaves to their hungers. To the need to feed on blood. But it's more than just the hunger for blood that drives the narrative. It's the hunger of safety, and for love, that really push everyone forward. For Domingo, who lives a life lacking safety and lacking much agency, it's his hunger for power. For companionship. He meets Atl, a vampire on the run from a rival gang, and immediately is drawn to her. Wants her. The hunger is sexual, yes, but it's also deeper than that. She feeds what he's hungry for—a sense of purpose and power and magic. He's grown up on vampire comic books and in Atl he finds a way to be a part of a story, to not only be a victim.
For Atl the hungers are more complicated. She has the hunger for blood, but she also hungers for revenge and for punishment. Both against those who have wronged her, who are hunting her, and against herself. Her guilt and shame and growth throughout the novel show how her hunger shapes her and sharpens her. How her relationship with Domingo feeds and nurtures a part of her that wants more than blood. That wants compassion and acceptance. But, just like with blood, that hunger takes on a certain addictive quality, where she must find and define herself not by contentment, but by lack. That it is the hunger that keeps her sharp and she needs to be sharp if she is to cut free of the nets dragging her down.
And so for me the novel is one that very much examines the setting. Examines this Mexico City where hunger is a living thing. That even without vampires it is full of things that drain people. Burdens passed down by the government, by the gangs, by the corruption that seems to infiltrate every level of the city, from the richest to the poorest. The character of Ana, a police detective who really only wants her daughter to live free and safe, embodies an interesting mirror to Atl. Both are running from vampires, Ana trying to put behind her days as a cop with a good track record of killing them in the hopes of getting away from the violence. Ana's drive is away from hunger. She wants to see her daughter not free from the system, but a beneficiary of it. But in order to break her daughter free she has to work with the system. Has to prop it up. And in doing she becomes entangled in the violent corruption at its heart.
As I said earlier, the book is both thrilling and romantic. But it's certainly not the brand of romance that many might be used to from vampire novels. The story does deal with domination and power imbalance, but not in a way that romanticizes abuse. The relationship between Domingo and Atl is complicated and rather dark. Indeed, if the title of the novel didn't clue you in, the entire piece is dark. From the setting to the situation to the execution, this story looks at some very uncomfortable things—violence and oppression, betrayal and loss of autonomy. For people looking for the standard Happily Ever After...well, maybe look elsewhere. This is both a source of great complexity in the book (especially with where the story leaves Atl and Domingo) and a source of some disappointment for me personally (especially with where the story led and leaves Ana).
That's not to say that the story doesn't treat with hope. Indeed, the story brilliantly brings Domingo and Atl to a place where they must look at their agency and their potential and what is better for them as people. Maybe not what will make them happier, but it seems pointed that the novel takes a stand against the idea that romantic fulfillment is the most important fulfillment. Especially in the face of Domingo's softer personality, the story plays with the expectation that he be rewarded for his actions. [SPOILERS...if I haven't already] In essence, Domingo remains not a complete shit throughout the novel. He doesn't really try to physically assault Atl and he obviously cares about her. But the novel doesn't view this as anything special. And certainly not as deserving Atl to give up her potential and who she is so that she can validate what a good guy he is. Which then confronts the reader, or at least confronted me, with my expectations. Which is a very nice twist.
And in the end the novel does a lot right. It's a fascinating deconstruction of the vampire romance that builds up an interesting and unique world and some amazing characters. I was a little bummed that I didn't get to see more of the setting, more the vampire sub-species, but what's here is fleshed out well (heh). If you're looking for a rather romantic read that still manages to crush about every trope from vampire romances, this is the book for you. If you're looking for blood and death and awesome genetically modified dobermans, this is the book for you. If you're looking for a nuanced examination of hunger and longing, corruption and hope, this is the book for you. Go read it.
Baseline Assessment: 8/10
Bonuses: +1 for Bernardino, because yes; +1 for not giving me what I wanted with the ending
Negatives: -1 for what happens to Ana; -1 for not giving me what I wanted with the ending (I'm impossible to please!)
Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 "Well worth your time and attention!" see our full rating system here.
POSTED BY: Charles, avid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.
Reference: Moreno-Garcia, Silvia. Certain Dark Things [Thomas Dunne, 2016]