Review: Vampires of El Norte by Isabel Cañas

cover of Vampires of El NorteVampires of El Norte by Isabel Cañas
Berkley (August 2023)
371 pages; $19.58 hardcover; $14.99 e-book; $20.25 audiobook 
Reviewed by Haley Newlin

Some things are too precious to lose. 

Nena and Nestor were inseparable as children. They even shared their first kiss. To Nena, Nestor’s voice is like coming home, but her father wishes to marry her to a wealthy rancher’s son to acquire more land for the family.

She didn’t always dread the idea of marriage, not when she envisioned it with Nestor.

The arm-twisting propriety and expectations of tradition fall harder upon Nena’s shoulders amidst the rising tensions with the Anglo settlers from the north. The Yanquis (Americans) are said to have brought something strange into the war that drains men of their blood and leaves them for dead.

A similar creature, with teeth like machetes, attacked Nena nine years ago, the night Nestor left, believing her dead.

He still thinks of Abuela’s old stories of witches and El Cuco while he works from ranch to ranch as a vaquero, haunted by the ghostly memories of his childhood sweetheart and the beast who stole her from him.

What was it?

When the United States attacks Mexico, Nena and Nestor are brought together “on the road to war” — Nena, as a healer and determined to show her father how essential she is to the ranch, and Nestor as a member of the auxiliary cavalry of ranchers and vaqueros.

Reading the anguish between lovers Nestor and Nena felt like settling into a classically grim gothic tale you know will be good. Isabel Cañas demonstrated this same expert execution in her debut novel, The Hacienda. Gothic fiction readers expect elements of romance, fantasy, and, of course, a monster, and Cañas delivers yet again.

Vampires of El Norte is an incredibly atmospheric and socially thought-provoking read that masters the use of critical themes, feminism, war, poverty, and colonization in a contemporary way. It’s genre-blending with such fierce poise I can only compare it to Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic. 

Vampires of El Norte isn’t your typical vampire read. Like Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, there are many manifestations of evil — both human and vampire. There’s the evil of war, greed, and of course, the social hierarchy that places Nestor far from Nena and to her father, no more than the dogs on the ranch.

I appreciated the comparison of colonizers to vampires, too. There was something so cinematically smooth and “woke” about that.

It’s emotionally polarizing. And powerful.

Not to mention, I loved the design of the vampires in Vampires of El Norte. They were tall and fearsome, with long, gore-slicked claws — more Salem’s Lot/Midnight Mass than Interview With A Vampire. 

Cañas’ sophomore novel is an atmospheric and historically inspired love story with dire moments of pure nightmare fuel. I couldn’t put it down. This story consumed me so entirely that I had to have both a physical copy and an audiobook.

Safe to say, I’m still coming off of that book hangover.

There is something here for everyone in Vampires Of El Norte. And as long as Cañas continues respiring life into the ever-daunting blank page, this reviewer will return, hungry for more.

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