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Isabel Cañas' 'Vampires of El Norte' elegantly navigates a multiplicity of genres


The lines between genres are now blurrier than ever, and that means writers who love to play with elements from different genres can mix them in any way they want.

Isabel Cañas' Vampires of El Norte is a perfect example of this. At once romance, horror, historical fiction, and an adventure narrative about war, Vampires of El Norte elegantly navigates a multiplicity of genres to deliver an engaging story that cements Cañas as one of the best new voices bridging the gap between romance and speculative fiction. It also proves that the sophomore slump is, at least in publishing, nothing but a myth.

Magdalena — Nena to her friends and family — is the daughter of a rancher in 1840s Mexico. The threat of Anglo settlers from the north taking her family's land has been a constant in Nena's life, but now there is another threat out there: a bizarre "disease" known as susto (or fright) that leaves people drained of blood and, in many cases, close to death. Nena knows susto well because nine years ago, she was attacked by something in the middle of the night while trying to dig up some buried treasure with her friend Néstor.

Unfortunately, Néstor ran away in the aftermath of the attack because he was convinced Nena was dead and he couldn't handle the grief and guilt, not to mention the consequences that would undoubtedly come his way. In 1846, the United States invades Mexico and Néstor goes back to help the cause and try to fight off the Anglos. That's when he learns Nena, who uses her skills as a curandera to join the ranchers on their journey to stop the invasion, survived the attack. Néstor imagined her dead and was thus haunted by her ghost for nine years, all the while Nena felt abandoned and angry, so their reunion isn't a loving one. As they move together toward war, Nena and Néstor must learn to navigate the past they feel so differently about while facing the invasion and the nightmarish creatures that hide in the desert and seem to be tracking them as they move.

Vampires of El Norte is a love story about two young people whose blossoming romance was violently cut short before it could really start. The narrative focuses on Néstor's endless grief and the nine years of nightmares, hard drinking, and pain that enveloped him during his self-imposed exile — and Nena's agonizing yearning and growing resentment during those years. Once they meet, they need to overcome everything they've been through before they can begin to navigate being together again. Their story, which is engaging and full of emotional turmoil, is framed by the invasion of Mexico, which Cañas meticulously researched, and by the vampires attacking the area and leaving people for dead just like they did to Nena. The different narratives coexist beautifully and while romance is the beating heart of the novel, the passages dealing with the vampires and their attacks are as gory and horrific as they are in straightforward horror stories.

While Cañas is at the forefront in terms of blending classic horror tropes with romance elements in new ways, she also accomplishes things in Vampires of El Norte that deserve attention. The first is the use of Spanish. Much like she did in The Hacienda, her previous novel, Cañas uses Spanish words in her writing, using the language not only for foods, places, and showing respect and courtesy between characters, but also to enrich the text with an undeniable sense of authenticity.

The second thing that deserves attention is the way vampires and the invading "Anglos" are both feared here, which means the author plays not only with a classic horror monster but also with the concept of humans as monsters that are feared in equal manner. In that way, this both a historical and a political novel, but it never gets bogged down with dates and it never feels preachy, which says a lot about Cañas' storytelling skills.

In many ways — setting, historical elements, the mix of romance and horror, the use of Spanish — Vampires of El Norte is the spiritual sister of The Hacienda. However, this novel feels more mature, the research was surely much deeper and nuanced, and the economy of language is superb. The Hacienda was great, but Vampires of El Norte is even better, and that should make readers very excited for whatever Cañas publishes next.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

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