As the daughter of a rancher in 1840s Mexico, Nena knows a thing or two about monsters—her home has long been threatened by tensions with Anglo settlers from the north. But something more sinister lurks near the ranch at night, something that drains men of their blood and leaves them for dead.
Something that once attacked Nena nine years ago.
Believing Nena dead, Néstor has been on the run from his grief ever since, moving from ranch to ranch working as a vaquero. But no amount of drink can dispel the night terrors of sharp teeth; no woman can erase his childhood sweetheart from his mind.
When the United States invades Mexico in 1846, the two are brought abruptly together on the road to war: Nena as a curandera, a healer striving to prove her worth to her father so that he does not marry her off to a stranger, and Néstor as a member of the auxiliary cavalry of ranchers and vaqueros. But the shock of their reunion—and Nena’s rage at Néstor for seemingly abandoning her long ago—is quickly overshadowed by the appearance of a nightmare made flesh.
And unless Nena and Néstor work through their past and face the future together, neither will survive to see the dawn.
Vampires of El Norte delivers everything I dared hope for in its opening sequence. Two young lovers in a historical fiction setting, sneaking out in search of hidden silver, are attacked by a monster in the night. The young woman, Nena, is killed, and her paramour, Néstor, flees in shame. It’s gothic, sensual, fun, and violent.
Little did I expect just how much more this novel has to offer.
Fast forward nine years, and Néstor has been working as a vaquero, believing his one true love is dead. And it’s the threat of war that brings him home to the place he fled those years before. The Yankees are making further incursions into Mexico, attempting to claim the land for themselves, so Néstor goes to join with the Mexican army to protect his home.
Of course, he finds Nena, alive and well, and there is a tense romance that builds between the two.
But there are also vampires. A plague of them, it seems, attacking both livestock and vaqueros, causing death and mysterious sickness.
But this is the place where Vampires of El Norte subverts our expectations. Because these creatures of the night are far from the most dangerous antagonists and finally aren’t even the vampires of the title. The vampires of the north are the Yankees, descending upon Mexico with their own plague of U.S. Imperialism, hoping to drain the country dry.
Don’t misunderstand, there is still plenty of gory vampire-fighting action, and the novel operates remarkably well at that level, but it is this one peculiar conceit that raises the book up and delivers more than its premise might lead one to expect.
It’s a book that presents social commentary that’s sharp and unflinching, all while delivering gothic romance, Western adventure, and bloody supernatural warfare. And Cañas pulls off this juggling act with startling facility, delivering a propulsive plot full of rich, relatable characters.