Vampires of El Norte by Isabel Cañas - Pretty Prose, Frustrating Romance

graffiti of Love is Love
Unless your Nena, then love is a pain in the ass.

Romance is not my genre. I’ve dabbled occasionally, but it never stuck as a lasting preference. I like a smattering of romance as a side note amongst larger plot points, and I prefer it stays minor.

I was intrigued by Isabel Cañas’ Vampires of El Norte after hearing it had a different take on vampires, as in, not glittering in the sun, sexy vampires that happen to go to your high school, and true to its word, the vampires are the scary, lurking in the shadows, sucking your blood for sustenance kind of vampires, and it was my favorite part of this book.

The story takes place in 1846 Mexico, which is now southern Texas, and I would have loved a map of the area because I struggled to understand where their family home in relation to the war and where Néstor was off gallivanting in his youth, but as a geographer by trade and education, I just love maps.

The point of views switch between Nena and Néstor. Nena is the daughter of a local ranchero, who is a landowner who employs laborers who work on his land for room and board, called peons. The unequal nature of this relationship is a regular topic of conversation, as Néstor is the nephew of one of these peons. At the start of the book, they are both pre-teens, twelve and thirteen respectively, and they are pre-teen in love.

The set up for the story is Nena and Néstor meeting secretly to dig up mythical silver so they can buy their own ranch and live happily ever after in the way only kids can imagine, then Nena is attacked by a scary-ass creature they much later realize is a vampire. Néstor kills it, but believes he was too late to save Nena and carries her body to her parents’ house, where everyone exclaims that she’s dead and her dad turns on Néstor.

Heart-broken and believing Nena dead, he runs from the ranch and spends the next nine years cultivating an impeccable jawline, endless nightmares about his dead love, and a small savings as a vaquero to buy his own land.

Nena, on the other hand, survived the attack and has no memory of what happened, just that Néstor abandoned her. She’s spent nine years trying to prove her usefulness as a Curandera, a healer, so her parents won’t force her into marriage to secure the rancho against shitty Americans trying to steal their land. Oh, and let’s not forget her all-consuming resentment of Néstor.

When the US starts a war with Mexico, Néstor is called back by his uncle, where, surprise! Nena is still alive. Thus begins the other three-quarters of this book, where they mostly don’t talk, and Nena is mad while Néstor is sad. The salty relationship matures as they go fight a battle against the Americans and deal with the growing threat of vampires, all while swimming in a soup of parental pressure. The last quarter of the book picks up and has all the horror and interesting twists I was longing for.

My beef with this book is the relationship and characters. Half the book is Nena pissed at pretty much everyone but mostly Néstor, even though she admits to herself that someone who was attacked by a vampire looks dead and her dad is scary as shit and running from him was probably smart. She won’t stand up to her own dad, so why would Néstor?

As a writer, I think the characters lack of interests and sense of self outside of their relationship was grating. We know her parents mostly see her as currency and she loves her family’s ancestorial land and the rancho, but outside of that, she appears to have no other interests or passions. Even the healer work feels more like a way to secure her future on the ranchero, not something she’s truly passionate about or enjoys.

Néstor is defined by his grief, so he enjoys drinking and flings with women. He’s good with horses and the ladies. He has a friend, which helps round his character more than Nena, who doesn’t appear to have any friends and few allies. Which, sure, but there were characters she could have connected with more, like her brother, who she uses to get what she wants, or Abuela, who teaches her healing, but every time it’s only about what they can do for her, not a loving, caring relationship that makes her likeable.

Altogether, the characters feel flat. Even when Néstor returns, they never get to know each other as people because she won’t talk to him, so their love is based entirely on their coveted childhood memories. They learn very little about each other as adults, and she’s rather insufferable—this coming from me—and he’s a limp noodle. I wanted more character development, and to see them as individuals.

The prose was lovely, and the last quarter of the book was great, concentrating all the vampire action I was craving at the end. The story could have cut fifty pages of thoughts and feelings from the main characters and moved the story along.

I watched an interview with Cañas, where she talks about wanting to create a mashup of romance and horror that could entice horror readers to romance and vice versa. Based on the reviews and my experience, I think it accomplished only one of those goals, drawing romance readers to horror, but not horror readers to romance. I think we all know romance readers who love a good true-crime podcast, but Steven King readers aren’t often perusing the period romance aisle.

I love genre mashups and there was enough here to keep me reading, especially as a consummate DNFer. It kept me hooked enough to get to the end, even if there were frustrating parts that had me rolling my eyes half-way through.

That being said, the setting description was immersive and cinematic, and is something to take away from the story as a writer. She did a great job of setting the scene both visually and emotionally through description. Give it a whirl if romance is your jam. If not, give it a pass.