Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Title: Certain Dark Things
I’m recently jumping through Moreno-Garcia’s books: one new, one old – and let me tell you: there is a difference. Certain Dark Things is Moreno-Garcia’s second book, and it shows. It boasts of lots of great ideas, a skillfully created, moody and thick atmosphere, and an interesting plot. But the prose is clunky at times and nowhere near as polished or subtle in her later novels, and the characters, while engaging, remain early blueprints of protagonists from her other books: a sensitive, naive boy and a headstrong, wilful girl meet again and again in Moreno-Garcia’s stories, and Certain Dark Things is no exception.
Certain Dark Things reads like a love story to the vampire genre. And, like a true fangirl she admits being, Moreno-Garcia delves deep into the lore, expanding it and twisting in delightful ways. Certain Dark Things explores an alternate history, in which in 1967 humanity discovered the existence of vampires as a separate species – and not only one type, your typical Dracula vampire inhabiting so successfully popular imagination, but actually ten subspecies, vastly varying in behavior and phenotypes and place of origin. From Central European Necros to Chinese Jiang-shi to East European Revenants to Mezoamerican Tlāhuihpochtin to North American Wendigos, Moreno-Garcia gleefully goes off the deep end into the myths and legends of blood-sucking and flesh-eating monsters. She reimagines the various subspecies as separate mafia families, hierarchical and violent and bloody, hellbent on defending and expanding their territories and influence, engaged in narco-business, and the ingenuity of this idea can be confirmed by the fact that it seems so natural, so apt.
As a result, Certain Dark Things’ version of Mexico City, dark, gritty, run by drug mobs and designated as a vampire-free zone, is a character in its own right. Filled with corrupt or indolent cops, sanitation crews wielding disproportionate power, people sick with various blood diseases, street kids, homeless, dangerous teenagers and mobs vying for power, Mexico City is not a great place to live. And yet, in Moreno-Garcia’s prose, it holds a certain noir charm: no, not for living, but for watching from a safe place ;). It’s not a coincidence, I think, that part of the story takes place on an enormous landfill; nor that the main character Domingo’s occupation is collecting useful trash. Certain Dark Things explores the notions of refuse and margins, of the things that are relegated to shadows of our everyday life – and those that choose shadows as their own place. Moreno-Garcia calls her book neon-noir; the new cover certainly reflects her choice: something of a glam dystopia, part Blade Runner and part Nosferatu.
There is plenty to love in Certain Dark Things; and yet, of all the Moreno-Garcia’s books I’ve read to date this is the weakest. While the characters were engaging, and their choices ambivalent and presented in many shades of gray, ultimately I felt that Certain Dark Things lacked the subtlety of Mexican Gothic or Velvet Was the Night. Part of the problem lies in the language, which is a bit stiff and clunky, though from time to time the languid melodious rhythm that Moreno-Garcia perfected in her later novels can be enjoyed also here. Part of the problem lies in too many POVs: the two main protagonists, Domingo and Atl, are accompanied by Rodrigo, a Necros human companion (Renfield) tasked with finding and killing Atl, Nick, a young and impetuous Necros and Rodrigo’s problematic charge, and Ana, a seasoned cop and onetime vampire killer, who gets entangled into a vampire-mob conflict. While Domingo and Atl’s POVs were interesting if overly angsty, the same can’t be said for Rodrigo or Nick. And it’s an interesting side note that the only likeable male characters are those completely bereft of macho traits; it’s the women who are strong and capable, who make decisions and knowingly pay for them. Atl and Domingo – and Nick – behaved like typical teenagers: a storm of hormones, constant jumps between extreme emotions, awkwardness and angst dialed up to 11. Middle-aged Ana and Rodrigo had potential to be more interesting, but with limited exposure they only came off as embittered and tired.
To be honest, my favorite character of the novel didn’t even get his POV; and maybe it’s for the better, as he remained suitably mysterious and aloof till the end. It says something about me, but also about the book, that in the end the only person I cared about was Bernardino: an ancient reclusive vampire, strictly adhering to the traditional codes of honor, polite to a fault, and yet far more empathetic and understanding than any of the other characters. His age allows him wisdom that the others, so bound in the now, don’t have. It also gives him a certain tragic air: a vampire who had outlived his age, who remains immersed in the past but is not yet ready to die. I didn’t feel invested in the fates of Domingo and Atl; but I certainly wanted to know if Bernardino was going to be okay ;).
Certain Dark Things can be also read as a reimagining of a colonial conflict: ancient Mexican vampires bound by tradition and ritual are being hunted down by the more ruthless, more creative and more versatile new European breed. The coexistence is possible, but certainly not easy – after all, Bernardino seems to be one of the rare European subspecies, too. It’s the greed, and the violence, that is at the root of the conflict – and ain’t that true. But the colonial lens would be somewhat misleading; at its core, Certain Dark Things is once again a romance story; a doomed, gritty romance, between a sweet-tempered human boy and a vampire girl with bad attitude (sort of Grease à rebours), sure, but romance nonetheless.
My copy, Tor’s reissue, contains a few bonuses: a Vampiric Encyclopedia, a short interview with Moreno-Garcia, and recipes for two Certain Dark Things-inspired drinks. There are even some questions for a book club discussion (I think? This is something very American to me ;)).
I received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.