Certain Dark Things: narco-vampire noir

Book cover: Certain Dark Things - Silvia Moreno-Garcia (a face half-obscured by swirling blood)There are no vampires in Mexico City: the sanitation squads and the human gangs keep the city clear. That makes it either the safest or the stupidest place for a vampire on the run – but Atl is out of options. Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s narco-vampire noir never misses a beat.

This was one of my most-anticipated reads of 2016. It was going to have to work exceptionally hard to live up to my expectations – hell, it was going to have to pull out all the stops just to live up to its deliriously gorgeous cover art. The good news? It’s every bit as slick and confident as it needs to be, and like all good vampire novels leaves you hungering for more.

The novel kicks off with a character study: Domingo, a young man who has wrenched himself out of the gangs, now picks through garbage for a living and makes his home in the sewers. It’s not much of a living, but he gets by. He’s far from an obvious hero, but his naive optimism is hard to resist. Still, he’s used to being invisible – indeed, he relies on it to survive.

When the pretty girl on the train strikes up a conversation, it throws him for six. He’s seen Atl before with her edgy style and her enormous dog, but he never expected more than a daydream from their brief encounter. Needless to say, he gets rather more than he bargained for – which doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm in the slightest. In an unexpected if sensible touch, Atl is mostly concerned about his diet. Domingo finds himself being force-fed iron tablets and orange juice: after all, she needs to keep a clean supply healthy.

As the narrative picks up pace, we (and Domingo) begin to learn about Atl’s past and about vampires in general. An indigenous vampire from the north, she’s on the run from a blood feud after a rival clan butchered her family. If I’m being critical (and I suppose I should try to be), there’s a fair amount of exposition in these early chapters and readers’ mileage may vary. Moreno-Garcia tailors well-established lore to her purposes rather than reinventing it, but the interweaving of vampire and drug cartel tropes works like a charm – and the casual world-building around it is rock solid. This is a framework that can cheerfully support many different stories.

For me, everything fell into place with the introduction of Bernardino, old friend – or is he? – of Atl’s recently-murdered mother. Where Atl is young and alluring, Bernardino is the nosferatu of the piece – he feeds on life force, not just blood (and he’s as happy to drain a vampire’s life force as a human’s). Hunch-backed and ancient, he is all ominous pronouncements and mind games.

In the end, we are always our hunger

In other words, he’s exactly how I like my bitter old vampires, and he provides the first test of Domingo’s mettle as he tries to scare the boy off. Much of the rest of the novel is arguably an exploration of whether or not Bernardino is right to to imply that all vampires are assholes.

Enter Nick. I disliked(as I was clearly intended to) pretty much everything about the brash young Necro hunting Atl down. In company with the fabulously world-weary Rodrigo (a ‘Renfield’ in service to Nick’s father – vampires are born in this mythology, not created), Nick has chased Atl from the north to Guadalajara to Mexico City. But where Bernardino channels ancient vampire tropes to great effect, Nick is all brash cartel wideboy. He literally takes chunks out of people when he feeds, and he’s far less fussy about who he feeds on. He’s also a misogynistic prick; it eventually becomes clear that much of his enthusiasm for hunting Atl down comes from a long-ago rejection. I’m never particularly comfortable with narratives that give point of view time to men who want to hurt women; it was easy to take Atl’s side even when it became clear how much of her situation is of her own making.

The last point of view is Ana, jaded vampire-killer cop battling the sexism of the police force who has taken a job in Mexico City purely to get her daughter out of vampire territory. There’s an alternate version of Certain Dark Things (in my head) which is told entirely by Domingo, Atl and Ana, and where Nick is reduced to a noises off distraction from the threat of a dedicated professional who is willing to make dubious alliance with a human gang in order to protect her daughter. While I loved Certain Dark Things, I felt Ana’s storyline was under-served. I loved her conflicted loyalties far more than the straightforward villainy of the Necro crew.

However, it’s a minor gripe. By the time I reached the sequence of showdowns that lead to the climax (in a rubbish dump, which has a pleasing inevitability about it), I had been entirely sucked in. Just as I became convinced that the novel couldn’t possibly stand alone, the narrative wrenched itself back from the brink to stand – like Atl – elegant and solitary.

It’s been years since I last read a vampire novel I enjoyed this much. While it’s not exactly original – it’s quite deliberately re-working traditional archetypes (it even tilts at the modern trope of vampire romance) – it gives me hope for the subgenre, as it proves there’s plenty of scope to breathe fresh life into these old bones. It’s an immensely satisfying read, leaving the door open for more stories in the world (including fan fic, people. Bring it on).


Certain Dark Things will be published on October 25th.

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Not reading it until a month before publication has been the biggest challenge of my blogging experience to date. I can only assume I will fail all self-control tests from here until Christmas as a result.