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Book Review: Chupacabra Vengeance by David Bowles

“Bowles has delivered a work of genius, producing a collection of entertaining speculative fiction that is also literary gold.”

Award-winning Mexican-American author David Bowles is a man of many talents. As well as a teacher and a lifelong academic with a particular passion for learning about languages and cultures, he is also a published poet and respected editor. With all of his work, his own heritage and background play an important role as he strives to simultaneously entertain the reader and educate them in the richness of Mexican storytelling. Here he has brought together a collection of stories from every era of his career as an author that do just that.

The stories within Chupacabra Vengeance are divided into five groups of three interconnected stories, connected either by theme or setting or character.

The first three stories fall under the heading ‘Bleak Border’ which all take place along the Mexican-US border. The first, ‘Aztlán Liberated’, finds a world in the throes of an alien invasion. But the invasion seems to have been confined to an area saddling the Mexican-US border. Here we find a group of latino soldiers who stumble upon an ambushed American mission which had orders to attack the aliens at their landing site, thus putting an end to the war. The soldiers must decide whether or not to complete the mission for their American counterparts and, ultimately, for Aztlán. This is a very entertaining and action-packed story and Bowles manages to give his characters authenticity without resorting to stereotypes.

‘Chupacabra Vengeance’ is set in an earlier time to the first story, but the threat faced by the main characters is very familiar. Here we find a young girl who seems to have a gift for herding goats, just like her father. While her mother is working in America, her father takes ill and is taken to hospital, leaving Silvia to care for her younger brother and their goats. But they are soon plagued by mysterious creatures that drain the blood of their herd. With no other choice, Silvia takes her brother and heads north for the border, and their mother. But they soon face a different threat. Despite the fact that he is writing from the point of view of a girl on the verge of womanhood, Bowles nails the voice of his protagonist, while delivering another entertaining and well written tale.

‘Bloody Feathers’ has one of the most disturbing opening lines you could imagine. Yet it sets the tone of the story perfectly. Here we meet “Peck”, a hunter of sorts. It is his duty to stop the apocalypse by ensuring Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war, is not reincarnated in human form. The way in which he does this is very dark and very brutal. But Bowles handles the subject matter in a great way, using the folklore of the Aztecs to deliver a fantastic story.

The next three stories are collected under the heading ‘Spiritual Protectors’ which all tell the story of women defending their communities from evil forces. The first story of this kind is ‘Wildcat’, a fictionalised account of Donna Hooks, a divorcee for whom the town of Donna, Texas was named. The story is made up of Donna’s diary entries as she attempts to oversee the building of her own farm. But her endeavours are interrupted when some of her workers kill a large wildcat, only for it’s true form to become clear. She then takes it upon herself to raise the wildcat’s three cubs, in an attempt to convince them of their own true form. The way Bowles captures the voice of, not only a female protagonist, but a female protagonist in 1908/9 America is wonderful. And the way the reader is fully invested in Donna’s plight right up until the tragic end is testament to Bowles’s ability as a storyteller.

‘The Bones of Rio Roco’ is again told from the diary of Donna Hooks, this time from February 1928. Here we find an older and wiser Donna, having developed the gift that she discovered in the previous story and also having developed something of a reputation because of it. Tragedy is hinted at in her past, as is conflict with certain dark forces. In this story she is convinced to use her gift to help locate some missing children. Haunted by her previous conflict with the forces of darkness, she is reluctant to place anyone else in danger. But she is compelled and finds herself face-to-face with both witches and gangsters. This story gives Bowles a chance to once again prove he is more than adept at portraying his characters in a very realistic way. It is another tale incorporating elements of Mexican folklore, but given a fresh lease of life under Bowles’s masterful storytelling.

Bringing us up to the 1980s, ‘Barbie Versus el Puma Negro’ is told from the point of view of Barbie, a sassy, kick-ass heroine who fights the forces of evil by night, and is an elementary teacher by day. She seems unfazed when dealing with the reanimated corpse of a long-dead favourite wrestler who seems to be under the control of a sorcerer. When she brings the matter before the local council of wise women, she is soon armed with all of the mystical might they can muster. And with not a minute to spare as the dark sorcerer sends another zombie after her, this time choosing someone who has a closer connection to Barbie. Another great story.

The stories in the ‘Dark Grimoire’ section are connected by an apocalyptic prophecy regarding the “Great Old Ones”, possibly hinting at a connection with Lovecraft and his godlike creations. The first ‘The Obsidian Codex’ finds Dr. Robert Kerr, a university professor who embarks on a quest to unearth a mystery revealed after the death of his grandmother. He follows in the footsteps of his grandfather, noted archaeologist Dr. Nelson Kerr, seeking the Obsidian Codex of the title, a pre-Colombian text that, when translated, will bring about the end of the world with the summoning of the Great Old Ones. Bowles delivers a very human protagonist in Robert Kerr, a man who, consumed with a determination for truth and answers, will stop at nothing to achieve his goals.

Robert Kerr’s grandfather, Nelson Kerr, is the protagonist of ‘The Children in the Trees’, one of the more chilling stories in the collection. It begins with a general unease which gradually grows as Nelson realises that he is seeing signs depicted in the Obsidian Codex. Upon further investigation of a nearby lake, he meets a man who must take extreme precautions to keep the servants of the Great Old Ones at bay. When he is forced with a similarly extreme decision, Nelson must decide how much of himself he is willing to sacrifice for the greater good. In asking this question of his protagonist, Bowles is also asking it of his reader. It is a very disturbing question which makes this a very affecting ending. Not one that we will forget any time soon.

The final story of this section, ‘The Luminous’, follows protagonist Achitomal as he is sent on a mission from the Aztec Emperor himself to venture from the capital city Tenochtitlan into the Chichimec wastelands in search of a trading party. His worst fears are realised when he finds a village devoid of both traders and villagers. He soon encounters a group of strange beings, the Tzapatoton, mythical creatures with certain abilities. They soon relay the devastating truth of what happened and what must be done to stop ‘the Luminous’, corrupt creatures that worship the Great Old Ones. Led by the sorceress Ezmeya, they plan to sacrifice four hundred captives to summon their dark lords and bring about the apocalypse. But Achitomal is convinced, for a price, to confront Ezmeya in a thrilling and entertaining finale.

In the section ‘Hard Road to the Stars’, Bowles transports his stories to a futuristic setting without sacrificing his style. The first story, ‘Winds That Stir Vermilion Sands’, begins in the year 2370. Here we meet seven-year-old Rodrigo ben-David, living alone in the roughest area of a shanty town on Mars. His father has been gone for a week at this point, scavenging for supplies, when Rodrigo as accosted by an unknown attacker. But his father returns just in time, armed with some strange device. We then move forward eight years to find Rodrigo and his father still scavenging. But Isaac has an idea to make all the money they’ll need by selling their prized possession to a local crime boss, a decision with which Rodrigo does not agree. This leads to a confrontation that not everyone shall walk away from whole. Thanks to Bowles’s character development we are fully invested in the outcome and Rodrigo’s fate. The last section where a character addresses God is some very powerful and emotive writing.

‘Undocumented’ follows a sixteen-year-old “pocho”, as he narrates his first-person story of fleeing from the United States to Mexico, escaping a new ice age. Thanks to his grandmother’s sacrifice of everything she owns, he has the opportunity, through some illegal means, to board a generational ship set for the stars. If he is lucky he will make it on board as maintenance crew, destined to die long before the ship reaches its destination. But first he must contend with frozen landscapes, border patrols and those that would take advantage of a young man in trouble. In this futuristic setting, Bowles is able to flip the present day situation and have someone desperately trying to get out of America. But the stakes are still the same, the prize of a better life on the other side of the border is still something to be coveted. Another entertaining piece of science fiction that again showcases Bowles’s versatility as a storyteller.

‘Flower War’ tells the story of a futuristic empire which seems to mirror the ancient Aztec civilisation. An emperor once again rules from the capital city of Tenochtitlan and there are references to other superpowers, but the main character, Director of the Imperial Agency for Space and Flight Dr. Chimalmah Papalo, must contend with representatives of the religious community while overseeing a manned mission to the moon in preparation for colonisation. She must also deal with a terrorist threat at the launch site. Bowles’s ability at world-building is evident throughout this collection, but is especially important in this story. A writer of lesser ability would have struggled to make the story so compelling given the level of detail required. But Bowles handles it superbly.

The last three stories are collected under the heading ‘Hounds of Heaven’ and all concern a myaterious man by the name of Philip Kindred (no doubt a nod to the author’s respect for Philip K. Dick). The first story, ‘Jealous Spirits, Thundering Gun’ serves as a perfect introduction to Kindred as we meet him in April 1870, heading west from Texas into New Mexico, following mysterious directions from a lost love. Haunted by past horrors and loss, he finds himself drawn to a town in the midst of a crisis: children are dying at an unusual rate. And he is soon drawn into a conflict with an evil not of this world. But, as it transpires, this is not new territory for Kindred. Bowles makes comparisons between his main character and Dante throughout the story, as he puts Kindred through his own version of hell and pits him against his own challenges.

In the second story, ‘Ancient Hunger, Silent Wings’, we are introduced to Nicolasa, a young girl on the verge of womanhood who develops a strange hunger. Her grandmother soon explains the nature of the family curse to Nicolasa, that they are forced to feed this strange hunger using unorthodox, and disturbing, methods. At first appalled by the implications of the curse, the girl soon loses control of herself during these periods of feeding, bringing her to the attention of Kindred, his role in the world now firmly established after the events of the previous story. This soon leads to conflict and a powerful ending. Again Bowles’s development of character is masterful as is the way in which he captures the array of character voices throughout the story.

The final story of this section, and indeed the collection, is ‘Iron Horse, Mythic Horn’. It is told from the point of view of a young woman of Apache heritage who goes by the name of Katy Whitmore and Bowles delivers her narration with a very genuine voice for the time and place, the kind of voice we are used to hearing in westerns. It adds another layer of authenticity to a multi-layered story. She seeks the “Hounds of Heaven” a name given to Kindred and the group of religiously-varied warriors he travels with, in order to protect a shaolin monk and his unusual cargo from a demon attack while they travel on-board a train. Here Bowles delivers an entertaining tale while also revealing so much about the characters that we would have happily read an entire novel dedicated to their adventures. Indeed, Bowles has hinted that he hoped Kindred would be the basis for a series. We can only hope.

What a thoroughly enjoyable and thrilling collection. Every story is full of compelling and complex characters, the heroes have flaws and some of the villains have redeeming features or, at the very least, reasons for being the way they are. Bowles’s studies in language and culture have served him well here as resources that he can draw upon to furnish his stories with authentic details. And he does a fine job of utilising his own heritage to deliver pre-existing Mexican folktales in his own contemporary style and to a global audience who may otherwise have never heard of a bruja or nahual before. As we have mentioned throughout the review, the voices of his characters are so genuine that we felt drawn into each story and were instantly invested in the fates of the protagonists. Bowles has delivered a work of genius, producing a collection of entertaining speculative fiction that is also literary gold. And that is no easy feat.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Broken River Books
Paperback: 298pp
Release Date: 22 February 2017

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