Book: Certain Dark Things
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Published: October 25, 2016
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s second novel, Certain Dark Things, tells the story of a blood feud between two vampire clans being fought in Mexico City, where vampirism is outlawed. The story’s told through a rotating close third-person point of view, with each chapter assuming a mix of objective facts and subjective thoughts from the novel’s principal characters: Domingo, Atl, Ana, Nick, and Rodrigo. Atl and Nick are different breeds of vampires from warring clans enmeshed in a cat-and-mouse game as Nick and Rodrigo hunt Atl across Mexico city.
The book starts with a brilliant reimagining of a meet-cute. Domingo – a young trash collector – riding on a train, spots a beautiful woman. He approaches her and she invites him back to her apartment… to feed as it turns out. It’s a good set-up, and I like the work that Moreno-Garcia does with Atl’s decision to bolster Domingo’s now decreased blood supply with orange juice and iron pills rather than kill him. The choice drives Atl’s emotional arc. She’s in mourning and unmoored from everything she’s known. Those feelings drive her to cling to Domingo, and as the conflict escalates, Domingo becomes more and more of a liability because of his ignorance, his peaceful nature, and his physical weakness.
What I love about the opening is that the reader is treated to a usurping of a traditional motif – the young man who accosts an unassuming woman on a train is the one who is brutally punished for it, not the other way around. She takes blood from him multiple times. He’s punched, kicked, and imprisoned. He loses his best friend and his job. The novel truly shines in the stories of the humans being dragged in their wake because they’re the characters whose lives we get to see put together before they fall apart.
Nick and Rodrigo have the inverse of Atl and Domingo’s relationship, where Rodrigo’s experience clashes with Nick’s impetuousness, slowing the human down. While Atl and Domingo and Nick and Rodrigo run parallel, both duos negotiating the vampire-human partnership’s uneven power dynamics, the fifth point of view character Ana Aguirre is a wildcard. She’s the police officer initially tasked with investigating the vampires’ actions, and she’s the character that Moreno-Garcia truly stacks the deck against. Ana’s outmatched, not having nearly the physical power of the vampires. She’s a woman in a male dominated police force and is discriminated against. She’s mother of a high school daughter she can’t afford to take care of. Because she’s hunting both vampires without a more powerful patron, she starts the story as a wildcard. While it’s obvious to the reader that Ana will eventually take a side, there’s no way to be sure of which side it will be.
Through the middle, Moreno-Garcia uses the tension of Ana deciding which side to take to drive the story. She ups the ante by introducing a violent gang that wants Ana to give the vampires to them rather than the police. The offer they make her is a moral one as much as a financial one and watching Ana’s contact persuade her is fascinating. During that exchange, the contact says, “We both want the same thing, Detective. We want safer streets.” It’s immediately compelling. Why do cops go bad? Maybe because in the beginning going bad is the way to do good, and Moreno-Garcia illustrated it beautifully. But this is where my main issue with the book starts.
The nuanced, complicated conflict gets resolved quickly, and in a simple, generic manner that doesn’t match the complexion of the issue’s introduction. It seems throughout the book, Moreno-Garcia demonstrates a talent for setting up fruitful scenarios, but she also demonstrates a tendency to rush through the climaxes. Here’s a minor example. The set-up for this action scene was several chapters long, and we find our heroes are cornered, then:
Atl pulled out a knife from between the folds of her jacket and threw it at one of the men, hitting him square in the middle of his forehead. The other man reacted quickly enough, grabbing a gun and shooting at her, but the bullet did not hit her hard and she landed on the man’s chest, breaking his neck with one clean movement.
From there, it goes to resolution and then the next, escalated conflict. A few chapters were spent getting the characters into this situation and then it resolved in two sentences. The book rushes opportunities like this frequently. By making the guards totally incompetent or Atl totally overpowering, the reader misses out on what makes fight scenes fun: the tension of not knowing what will happen next, and it pervades most of the book’s climactic scenes.The book doesn’t linger in its biggest moments, and that makes them feel small.
My other criticism was the book references Dracula and other vampire fictions too often, though it is in service of a thematic message. Moreno-Garcia has invented twelve vampire species for this world, yet the human companions are called Renfields, after Dracula’s human lackey in the Stoker novel. Though Moreno-Garcia does lampshade it when Atl thinks, “it was such a coarse term foisted upon them by Anglo popular culture,” the references takes away from the richness of the world she’s built by constantly reminding the reader of other fictional vampires. In Domingo’s point of view, there are very frequent references to vampire comics, movies, and books. While there are a few specific titles referenced, it’s much more often generic “vampire comic books.” I suspect that part of the work Moreno-Garcia is doing with these references is showing how representation of minority groups, in this case vampires, shapes the way they’re perceived by the public, as represented by Domingo. Which it absolutely does. Representation matters. Domingo constantly asks Atl about her physiology because he’s only familiar with her allegorical race/literal species because he’s only been exposed to vampires through pop media. I’m glad she brought us there, and when she’s highlighting the way stereotypes can destroy relationships, it’s working brilliantly. The book doesn’t need all of the references to get there though.
Moreno-Garcia earned awards and praise for her first novel Signal to Noise and edits the excellent The Dark Magazine. She deserves praise for writing a diverse cast of complicated characters and using her platform as a writer to address lack of representation with Domingo and Atl’s relationship, workplace gender discrimination with Ana’s police force, and the stigmatization of interracial marriages through Bernadino’s dialogue. The novel isn’t perfect, but it’s well-intentioned, exciting, and at times, beautiful. It’s more than enough to have me excited to read what Moreno-Garcia’s written so far and to check out her next project.