Vampires of El Norte by Isabel Cañas is 90% love story and 10% mild-to-severe supernatural interruptions of said love story.
Magdalena “Nena” Narváez and Néstor Duarte are star-crossed sweethearts. Nena is the daughter of a powerful ranchero, Don Feliciano, while Néstor is the poor son of a vaquero, destined to forever work for people like Nena’s family. The story opens with a tragedy when Nena is attacked and nearly killed by a mysterious creature and Néstor, believing her to have actually died, flees the rancho. But the pair is reunited in 1846, when Nena is a healer, Néstor is a soldier and the United States is about to begin its invasion of Mexico.
Nena and Néstor wrestle with their need for each other, the societal strictures keeping them apart and their years of separation, resentment and grief—all while dealing with ongoing attacks from either vampires or United States soldiers. Nena and Néstor suffer from a classic case of poor communication; they step on each others’ feet with bitter retorts and clumsy attempts at small talk. Cañas writes from each character’s perspective, illustrating Nena and Néstor’s warped views of each other in brooding vignettes. As the war rolls on, Cañas inserts quiet moments where Nena and Néstor explore their disaffection with each other, draw out their pain and knead their emotional scars into renewed bonds. It’s a painful process, but thanks to Cañas’ skill, there are moments of joy and tear-inducing sweetness.
While the romance is an unquestionable centerpiece, Cañas does a fantastic job bringing the setting to life. She sketches out the life of a vaquero in small details, such as how Néstor loosens saddle cinches at the end of the day and checks boots for scorpions, and takes time to note the styling of characters’ clothes and hair, immersing the story in the beauty of mid-19th century Mexico.
Now a reader might, at this point, be wondering about the elephant in the room, the one with fangs and a taste for blood. And the reviewer will answer: Vampires are definitely in the book. They are moderately frightening. They are primarily a plot device to move the story forward. Readers looking for a scary horror novel will not find it in Vampires of El Norte, but they will find a dramatic and well-rendered setting, a drizzle of animalistic vampires and an engaging story about two young lovers who want nothing more than the freedom and strength to be together in a world determined to rip them apart (sometimes literally).