Vampires have been long used (and sometimes over-used) in horror/paranormal literature, so that at times it seems that nothing new can arise from that corner of the genre. Then books like Certain Dark Things come along, and new life is breathed into the concept.
For starters, this story is set in Mexico City – quite a far cry from the usual mid-European foggy wilderness one would expect whenever vampires are concerned – and this gives the novel a very peculiar quality, enhanced by the discovery that there are several kinds of vampires, each with their own unique appearance and customs: in keeping with the various world-wide legends about a blood-sucking creature that preys on humans, the novel postulates that vampires are not all alike and they don’t necessarily look like pale-faced Count Dracula.
While the existence of vampires is a well-known fact in the history of the world as depicted by the author, their presence is not tolerated everywhere, and Mexico City is indeed one of the places where they are unwelcome, with “sanitation squads” making regular checks, not unlike those of the police in a totalitarian state, to root out and deport – or exterminate – any stowaway blood-sucker. Mexico City is, at least on the surface, a place where only drug cartels and other kinds of criminal groups can operate, but among the widespread corruption and the tired indifference of the authorities there are always dark areas where the occasional vampire can slip into the cracks.
This is what happens with Atl, the only surviving member of a clan of vampires whose roots go back to the Aztec civilization: her family was exterminated by a rival gang of Necros – which are a more “classical” variety of vampires – and she’s trying to bide her time until she can cross over to Bolivia where she will have better chances of survival. The Godoy family, here represented by brash, young Nick with his human sidekick Rodrigo, is on Atl’s tracks with the goal of eliminating the last survivor of the competition, although Nick has a further agenda, that of exacting vengeance on her for humiliating him when she managed to escape capture. Quite unexpectedly, Atl gains an improbable ally when she meets Domingo, a homeless teenager who survives by selling useful objects he searches for in trash dumps: at first she sees him only as a blood source and an errand runner (a “Renfield” in the vampire speak quite ironically derived from Bram Stoker), but his status will change as the danger increases and her enemies close in. The last point of view of this quick-paced, fascinating story is represented by Ana Aguirre, a police officer trying to do her job as honorably as possible in a city where dishonesty and lack of care are the rule.
The background for Certain Dark Things is wonderfully detailed, the characters well-drawn and believable – especially the “bad guys” whose ruthlessness and lack of any moral code is drawn with the skilled finesse they require – and the whole vampire culture is an intriguing revelation, but for me the real focus of this story is young Domingo: everything revolves around him, to the point that all the other characters, on every side of the fence, acquire depths and facets only in relation to him. In a way, he is a catalyst, and as it happens with every chemical reaction, his presence changes things.
On the surface, Domingo is a discard of society, not unlike the garbage he collects in search of valuable articles: his family rejected him, the rag-tag band of street kids he first joined treated him badly, and he now lives alone in the abandoned tunnels of the subway, leading a hand-to-mouth existence that nonetheless affords him a modicum of freedom and self-respect. With these premises, one could expect him to be angry, hateful, cynical – not so: Domingo is a gentle soul full of dreams, gifted with guileless innocence and an awkward goofiness that is quite charming. He’s fascinated by vampires and possesses a collection of graphic novels that taught him all he knows about them, or rather all he believes he knows: when he first sees Atl and her guard dog on the subway, far from realizing what she is, he simply sees a figure from those novels – a stark, black and white living illustration from those comic books, and that’s how the reader perceives her too, because Domingo is indeed our eyes and ears, allowing us to see the world through his perspective.
No one can remain indifferent to Domingo’s view of the world, nor to his loyalty: what starts as a sort of inescapable fascination for Atl, who has no other plan but to use and discard him in the fashion of her people, becomes steadfast devotion and unshakable support even in the face of mortal danger. The harrowing few days in which Domingo and Atl try to stay one step ahead of their pursuers, while seeking the means to leave Mexico City, see the young man’s change from unprepossessing street urchin to protector and shield: where he could not find the strength to stand up to those who mistreated him in the past, he now can find it for Atl, giving himself up to whatever awaits him down the line.
There is a point when a man may swim back to shore, but he was past it. There was nothing left than to be swallowed by the enormity of the sea.
And for her part Atl cannot remain indifferent to Domingo’s attitude and starts to see him as a person, if not an equal, going against everything she has been taught and the warnings of Bernardino, the ancient, creepy Revenant who accepts to help her. The feelings she starts to develop toward Domingo don’t come out of the blue but stem from the realization that, being alone and the last of her clan, she needs not follow the ancient rules but can forge some new ones, be a law unto herself. Even Bernardino, for all his ancient cunning and the dire warnings he imparts on Atl, seems to recognize something in Domingo, a quality that distances him from mere food and cannon fodder: there is a hint of acknowledgement, almost respect, in the old vampire that remains unexpressed but is however there.
At some point, during the course of the novel, the fascination exerted by vampires on human is likened to the attraction of the moth to a flame: in the same way, the reader is irresistibly drawn into this story, caught by the relentless pace of the action and held there by the fascinating characters and their journey. An amazing find, indeed.
My search for interesting short stories (and a quick sample of authors who are new to me) continues… I have recently discovered the dedicated section over at Tor com, and found many interesting offerings. This week’s choice is for:
The vampire myth has been explored in all its forms and variations, so one might think there is no room for a new angle or a different perspective, yet at times you can find authors able to put a different spin on the trope. This is the case of Meat+Drink, indeed, a story told from the perspective of vampires who have none of the glamour, attraction or sophistication that’s usually associated with the most classical point of view of the genre.
The narrator here used to be a 17-year old girl but is now meat, as opposed to flesh – dead as opposed to living. She shares a hiding space with four other undead, one of them a child, spending their days in a basement, away from the sun, and their nights either scavenging in search of money or valuable objects, or hunting for prey – for drink.
This former girl’s voice is quite peculiar, more like a stream-of-consciousness report than a organic tale, grammar and punctuation as decayed and still decaying as the walking meat these vampires have become once they lost the vitality of flesh. As the unnamed narrator says: “flesh is ever-changing, flesh is self-aware. meat is insentient, meat is stagnant”. The horror in this story does not come so much from seeing these vampires prey on the living, but from the feeling of hopelessness and despair of such a condition, so much stronger and poignant because they remain unexpressed and probably unfelt.
And yet something of the former personality must remain after the transformation, as the events show when the little “family” undergoes an upheaval that changes the internal dynamics. It might be wrong to use the world “hope” in such circumstances, but the end is a little less bleak than the rest of the story. And that’s enough.
TOP TEN TUESDAY is a meme created at The Broke and The Bookish, with the aim of sharing Top Ten lists of our favorites – mostly book related.
For this last week of the year, the topic is: Top Ten Best Books of 2016
When the time comes to draw up a list like this, I find myself faced with some hard choices, because most of the books I’ve reviewed – and for 2016 they amount to a round 60, which is something of a record for me, given the limited time I can devote to reading – are books I liked quite a bit.
I spoke of reviewed books, rather than simply read, because some of the titles I picked up ended in the DNF pile, and of these I reviewed only a few – those for which I felt a very strong need to share the reasons I didn’t like them, although I managed to soldier on past the 25% mark that for me is the “make or break” point. Which means there are a few more that didn’t even make the list because I could not connect with either story or characters and moved on quite swiftly.
So, of these 60 books, only 3 were abandoned before the end, and I had to pick my favorite 10 out of the remaining 57: as I said, not an easy feat, and that’s the reason I’m not going to list my ten favorite titles in any particular order of preference, but rather in the order I read them. It’s the most Solomonic solution I could come up with…
THE FIFTH HOUSE OF THE HEART, by Ben Tripp
ILLUMINAE, by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff
DREAMER’S POOL, by Juliet Marillier
MORNING STAR, by Pierce Brown
THE LESSER DEAD, by Christopher Buehlman
DARK ASCENSIONS, by M.L. Brennan
THE DRAGON’S PATH, by Daniel Abraham
HOUSE OF SUNS, by Alastair Reynolds
BABYLON’S ASHES, by James S.A. Corey (forthcoming review)
Ok, the count really goes to 11 titles, but I can bend the rules a little if I consider that the books in the October Daye series are all parts of the same whole. Can I?
And what about you? What are your favorite reads for this year?
When a book starts as strongly as this one did, with a story that’s attention-grabbing from page one, the disappointment for its failed promises hurts twice as much: this is what happened to me with The Unnoticeables, whose narrative arc… imploded (for want of a better word) two thirds of the way in.
The story runs on two different time tracks, separated by 36 years: Carey, living in New York in 1977, is a young man reveling in the time’s punk scene, spending his days getting drunk, stoned – or both – and generally causing any kind of mayhem he can think of; Kaitlyn lives in Los Angeles, in 2013, as a part-time stuntwoman, part-time waitress trying, and so far failing, to bring her stunt work to the next level. Both of them are confronted by something that is both inexplicable and terrifying, something that possesses all the markers of a slowly spreading invasion.
The first inkling that something terrible is going on happens when Carey sees a girl he’s interested in being attacked by what looks like a man-shaped oily mass: the thing acts like acid, consuming the unfortunate girl and leaving only bloody remains behind. Moreover, in the area where Carey and his friends prowl, some peculiar individuals start cropping up: they all appear good-looking and attractive, but as soon as one’s eyes leave them, their features blur and no ones seems able to remember what they look like. Worse, whenever these people – dubbed by Carey “the Empty Ones” – manage to attract any given individual, the unfortunates disappear without a trace.
Kaitlyn, on the other hand, suffers from a more close-and-personal confrontation: at a party she meets Marco, former sitcom star and her teenage years’ crush. Accepting a ride back home from the man, she’s first appalled by his reckless driving and uncaring attitude, which make her think Marco is somewhat deranged, then he forces himself on her. More shocking than the sexual assault is its modality: Kaitlyn feels something metallic slide down her throat, and her strength and willpower being drained away. Saved by someone who bodily extracts her from Marco’s car, she makes Carey’s acquaintance: older, probably wiser but still tainted with his old recklessness, he’s living like a borderline homeless, but he has information on the Empty Ones – and is willing to help Kaitlyn trace her friend Jackie who disappeared after that fateful party.
The novel’s chapters alternate between Carey’s past and Kaitlyn’s present with a relentless pace that makes the book a compulsive read while we follow their scary journey of discovery: the two main characters are the best and strongest elements of the story, their voices persuasively true and their dialogue or thoughts evenly balanced between stark, dramatic reality and sarcastic humor. Carey comes across as the best defined one, though: the outrageous style of life he and his friends are pursuing should make them offensive, and yet there is a sort of wild abandon in Carey, tinged with the somewhat lucid awareness of what he is, that managed to endear him to me, and to make me root for him – especially when his rough attachment to his friends comes to the fore, almost belying his devil-may-care attitude.
Once Kaitlyn’s disbelief at her new friend’s revelations evaporates, the two decide to go on the offensive to try and save Jackie, and they pursue Marco’s car in a mad motorcycle dash through the congested traffic of Los Angeles. They follow him to a mansion where a party is in progress, and though realizing that the place must be crawling with Empty Ones like Marco they decide to go in: this is where the story started unraveling and making less and less sense to me. For starters, I could not figure out what the two were trying to accomplish knowing they were vastly outnumbered by people (if one wanted to call them that…) who could not be hurt, harmed or stopped in any way. And then the real madness kicked in…
What had started as a horror story about strange beings preying on unsuspecting humanity, and the slow infiltration of the Empty Ones in various facets of society (the most chilling example being Kaitlyn’s trip to the police station to denounce Marco’s assault), suddenly morphed into something best defined as crazily grotesque: the dangerous environment of the hellish party is only the front for what happens in the closed back rooms, where blood-drenched orgies lead to every kind of imaginable (and unimaginable…) sex perversion, give way to a frenzy of horrific mutilations and killings, all of which with no apparent rhyme or reason, except maybe the author’s penchant for imagining and depicting the most revolting and senseless acts of destruction.
At that point, only the desire for some sort of explanation kept me reading on, despite the appearance of even more gory weirdness in the form of a strange contraption to which the Empty Ones’ victims were being fed, all in the name of a nebulous fight against entropy. Sadly, whatever form of explanation, or clue to understanding the bloody mess this story had turned into, was not enough to save this novel from the downward plunge it had taken in my consideration. I’m not even certain I entirely grasped whatever passed for explanation: the only thing I’m sure about is that I will not pursue this series further.
I became aware of this series when reading the review for the third volume over at THE BIBLIOSANCTUM, and was immediately intrigued: titles like this one, or One Good Dragon Deserves Another and No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished are an implicit promise of humor mixed with the usual elements of the genre, and some light fun is always welcome between heavier reads. Moreover, if dragons are fascinating creatures, dragons who can take human form at will can be even more so.
Julius Heartstriker is an unusual dragon: unlike his brethren, he doesn’t enjoy typical draconic pastimes as domination, manipulation and the hoarding of riches, and prefers to keep himself apart from his large family, holing up in his room playing online games. Tired of this state of affairs, his mother Bethesda decides to put him in a “swim or sink” situation and after sealing Julius in human form, she kicks him out of the house with only the clothes on his back, and drops him in Detroit, where he will have to show some dragon-like initiative and strength: failure to do so will result in his death – probably at the hands, or rather jaws, of Mommy dearest. The city is, however, forbidden to dragons after the release of magic effected by Algonquin, the Lady of the Lake, and it’s a dangerous place for anyone, either on the upper levels where the more affluent live, or in the ruins of the old town, where the dispossessed and the shadier characters dwell.
To prove himself to his mother and the rest of the family, Julius will have to fulfill what looks like a simple task: retrieve the fugitive member of another dragon family and bring her back into the fold. The assignment proves however far less easy than predicted, due to some convoluted dragon politics and the added trouble brought on by Marci Novalli, a human mage with whom Julian strikes a business deal and who quickly becomes his partner and ally.
Nice Dragons Finish Last is a fast, entertaining story that manages to mix successfully the typical elements of Urban Fantasy with a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor that seems to enjoy poking some fun at the genre’s main tropes: this is particularly evident in the character of Marci who is a very skilled mage, quite versed in her craft but at the same time possessed of a MacGyver-like approach to magic that will more often than not bring a smile on your face rather than an awed expression. Yet, at the very same time, there is an earnestness in her, coupled with the tragic circumstances that brought her to the DFZ (Detroit Free Zone), that makes you also take her very seriously, just as Julius does, understanding – after a relatively short acquaintance – that he can rely on her to carry them both forward through the dangers they face.
Labeling Julius as a wimp would be quite appropriate, even by less exacting human standards: if on one hand I could understand his unwillingness, as a smaller-bodied dragon, to engage in the more physical activities of his large family, on the other I found his choice of becoming a couch potato did little to endear him to me, at least in the beginning. If Bethesda and her daughter Chelsie, the family’s executioner, appear quite ruthless and bloody minded, to the point that her treatment of Julian sounds altogether cruel, it becomes quickly clear that being an active part of a dragon family does not necessarily entail bloodshed and mayhem, and that one might find his or her own niche in some equally profitable activity that does not necessarily require physical violence, but rather shrewdness and business acumen. Yet Julius has chosen to hide himself in his room, preferring to avoid and be avoided, in what looks like a flight from responsibility – any kind of responsibility. So, after a while, one feels that maybe he did need to be shaken up and away from his complacent isolation, and Bethesda’s actions appear almost justified. Almost…
It will be only through his association with Marci and his growing fondness for the beleaguered human mage, that Julian will find his spine and the courage to stand up for what he believes in, and to finally tap his… inner dragon, but it will be a long and difficult journey, one that will take the two of them – at times helped by a couple of Julian’s more lenient brothers – through cat-infested, haunted mansions, Detroit’s sewer system plagued by scores of huge lampreys, and other less-than-savory places.
I have to admit that after a while I could not avoid the comparison with another Urban Fantasy series, one I enjoyed very much: M.L. Brennan’s Generation V, nor could I shake the impression that I might have enjoyed this one much more if I had not read the other prior to discovering this. In both cases we have a matriarch running a supernatural family, whose youngest child is reluctant to assume the role and duties that come with the territory. Here, like in Generation V, there are older brothers ready to help the younger sibling along – at least up to a point – and an older sister who is the family’s henchwoman and who can inspire abject terror at the merest mention of her name. And again, partnering up with someone from the outside (be it the mage Marci or the shape-shifting Suzume), makes all the difference for the main character who can finally overcome some of his liabilities and start to come into his own.
The tone is however quite different here, the balance between humor and drama leaning more toward the former, the dragons’ dynamics and peculiarities lending a unique flavor to a story that is both entertaining and intriguing, and lays the basis for promising future developments. As the beginning of a new series, Nice Dragons Finish Last is quite successful in introducing its readers to a peculiar world, giving just enough hints to pique their curiosity and make them want more. I, for one, will certainly want to know what’s in store for newly-awakened Julius and his journey toward becoming a full-fledged Heartstriker dragon.