Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
I’ve gotten tired of vampires. All too often, their social models are those of decadent, louche aristocrats with their courts and their bloodsucking royalty, or mafia-like crime lords. There isn’t much new about the process of drinking blood, either; they host a demon; or they are demons, or they have a virus. (Yawn.) I didn’t think anyone could make vampires interesting for me again until I read Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Certain Dark Things. Her vampires are crime lords, but not mafia; they run narco-cartels, and Certain Dark Things (2016) tells a story about a vampire and her human sidekick in a way that is gritty, romantic, action-y and new.
Moreno-Garcia’s story choices range from the Really Smart to the Brilliant. Within those categories, my choices will not line up with other reviewers’, because my reaction to this book was more idiosyncratic, mainly because I spent a couple of months in Mexico City when I was a teenager, even though my experiences, thank God, were nothing like those of these characters. The notes that chimed for me might not be the same as those that sang out for others.
Here are my categories:
Really Smart: Moreno-Garcia creates a family tree of different vampire subspecies. The vampires believe that they descended from a common ancestor and split off into different branches throughout prehistory. This lets Certain Dark Things introduce several kinds of vampires with different cultures, social mores, strengths, vulnerabilities and values. Atl, our vampire man character, is from a vampire line indigenous to the American continent, the Tlahuihpotchtli. The Tlahuihpotchtli are matrilineal, and in the past they served as warrior priestesses for the Aztecs. Bernardino is a Revenant, the most terrifying vampire to other vampires, since they eat psychic energy, including that of vampires; and Revenants can read minds. The Necros, who are the most obvious villains in the book, look like conventional Bram Stoker inventions. The Necros are an offshoot of a European branch of vampire; they have the fewest traditions and values. They can mentally enslave a human by sharing blood. There is a handy list at the back of the novel of the various vampire groups.
Really Smart: By using the narco-cartels instead of more conventional North American crime, Garcia-Moreno can introduce intense violence when she needs to; the convention of the “honorable” crime family fighting against newcomers with no honor and no values plays out beautifully here. In this scenario, Atl’s mother and sister represent the traditional way of doing things, and the Godoys, a family of Necros, represent the crass newcomers. This is a newer template than prostitution and gambling, and it gives the book a grittiness and an originality. It makes some of the things Atl has done in the past more plausible as transgressions, rather than strategic choices, and it raises the stakes for her.
Brilliant: Mexico City. I know most other reviewers loved the various vampires, and so did I, but what stood out on nearly every page was the sequestered, allegedly vampire-free-zone of Mexico City. The city had the feel of a place from a William Gibson book; not that it is a copy, just that Gibson would be at home writing a story about the people who live at street level, or gutter level, in this take on the city. Moreno-Garcia uses the historic neighborhoods or districts called colonias artfully to show us the near-future dystopia where Atl and Domingo, the teenaged junk-picker who helps her, live. We visit the neighborhood around the basilica, go into areas with the ruins of fine old mansions (Bernardino lives in one); into the down-on-its-luck Zona Rosa, which used to be the nightclubbing and party zone. The visuals, the smells, the signs and the people all read like real people in a city, fighting crime, vampires and various public health threats like waves of new viruses that threaten human residents. It’s a cliché to say “I felt like I was there,” but I did, even when we went to Domingo’s home in the abandoned subway tunnel.
But about the story: Atl is probably the last survivor of a family massacre at the hands of the Godoys and she had fled to Mexico City. It was easy to get in but is getting harder and harder to get out. The Godoys, particularly the indulged, loose-cannon son Nick, are on her trail. The Godoy’s human lieutenant tries to control Nick, but that is barely possible. Domingo sees Atl and her genetically modified dog on the subway. Young, idealistic Domingo is very attracted to her; she sees a food source. Atl makes a deal with Domingo so that he will feed her. When he discovers her predicament, Domingo tries to find ways to help her get out of the city. At first, Atl has no feelings for him, and she has sunk deeply into grief and guilt over her role in the murder of her mother and sister.
The story also involves Ana Aguirre, a cop with a successful record of killing vampires, who is confronted daily with corruption and sexism. Aguirre wants to protect her teenage daughter; her choices lead her to Deep Crimson, a human drug gang that wants all vampires eliminated from the city, and from there Aguirre stumbles into deep peril.
Atl (whose name in Nahuatl means “water”) is described as avian. The hummingbird is her family crest and we see the reason for this at the end of Certain Dark Things. Domingo is seventeen, a child of the streets who has been abused most of his life. He is scrappy and resourceful but still retains some vulnerability. His romantic streak, as he keeps fantasizing that maybe Atl will “like” him, is heartwarming (and heartbreaking). When Atl and Domingo get out of a very tight spot, the loner Bernardino reluctantly helps them, and offers them clothes that look like the came from the 1950s. Domingo comes close to becoming the matinee idol he imagines himself to be.
He appreciated the soak and he liked even more the clothes that Bernardino had picked for him. The shirt was a pale cream with mother-of-pearl buttons and the trousers were of a nice black material. He put the vest on top and thought he looked very polished…
Domingo wants the story of Domingo and Atl to be like the vampire romances he has grown up watching and reading. It isn’t. Still, for a few moments in the book, Atl and Domingo get close and Moreno-Garcia treats us to glowing light, lush music, romantic clothing, and wings.
At the other end of the continuum are the small details that make it clear Atl is not human. A government compliance group called Sanitation do regular sweeps of neighborhoods to check for vampires and also people infected with a deadly virus. In order to make the apartment where she is squatting look like a human lives there, Atl buys a couple of cans of beans, but she doesn’t have a can opener.
The other joy of Certain Dark Things is watching Atl grow and toughen up. As the younger daughter in a matriarchy, Atl was indulged, a party-girl; now, to survive, she must be strong and inventive. Atl learns her own limits and her own values as this story progresses. She comes to grips with the guilt she feels for her part in the escalating war between her family and the Godoys; she finds her own limits, even to loyalty and love, as the story finishes.
This is not a story with a conventional happy ending, it couldn’t be, but it is an emotionally satisfying ending. The final confrontation takes place convincingly at a landfill. While Atl’s situation seems a little abstract for the first third of the book, from the point she is taken to the fighting-dog kennel and confronts the Godoy clan directly, the action is off and running.
This is completely Moreno-Garcia’s world, her characters, and a very well-told story. I lost the thread of Ana Aguirre’s story at some point, specifically when her motivation shifted to leaving Mexico City, but in the final scenes of the book her journey is scary, suspenseful and carries consequences for all the characters. Atl and Domingo both make hard choices, and those choices are, as I said, emotionally satisfying. If you think nothing new can be done with vampires, then I suggest you read Certain Dark Things.
I’m tired of vampires, but this does sound good!
She definitely introduces genuine novelty to a threadbare trope.