I went to bookstore yesterday and this book caught my eye – well, actually, not this book, but the comment card next to it. I don’t normally read books with both vampires and semi-creepy eyes on the cover, but the comment said it was following a CDC employee tracking a new viral breakout. So I picked it up, read a few pages, and decided I absolutely needed this book.
A People’s History is an accounting of the first known outbreak of the NOBI virus, starting with the CDC’s response to the patient zero, a dead woman who walks out of the morgue in Nogales, Arizona. Told using a variety of viewpoints, interviews, and transcriptions, it details approximately the first four years of the vampires’ (known as Gloamings) emergence into the world.
This is a brilliant socio-political satire; it was an incredibly good book. It feels real in a way most society-exploding novels don’t. Villareal is a lawyer and his familiarity with the inner workings of the legal and political systems shine. Things are creepier and funnier and more biting as satire when they feel possible, even probable, and that is where Villareal truly excelled as an author.
He also did very thorough research (he referenced a Nature paper!) There’s a bit of hand waving going on with the science but unless you’re a molecular or cellular biologist (which I am) you’re unlikely to notice.
It’s “written by” a rogue historian and it is true to that voice; it feels very much like a slightly fictionalized take on non-fiction events. Villareal makes heavy use of footnotes (which I am a huge fan of!) and even some appendices (again, I am a huge fan!). The constant switch in point of views was done well enough that I only had to flip back a few times to remind myself who was whom – but I also read this in one sitting. (It’s so good! I just wanted to know what happened next.)
Villareal himself is an excellent storyteller and writer. I haven’t listened to the audiobook, but if the narrator is any good, I think it’ll shine (and it’s on a couple of best-of lists.) This is his first book and it shows in a few points; particularly, sometimes when it’s a character giving a deposition it slips into a third-party omniscient POV instead of keeping to a storyteller’s perspective. A few of his characters aren’t as sharply delineated from each other as they could be. Minor things, but he sets the bar really high, so you do notice.
I am a notorious scaredy-cat, and this book had me hiding in the bathroom with the lights on to finish it. But it’s not actually horror or even that much of an action novel; certainly people are dying but there’s only a few scenes with high-stakes tension and on-stage deaths happening. And while there were a few snippets that had me laughing, A People’s History was thought-provoking satire, not side-splitting parody.
Finally, I loved his choice of both characters and settings. Villareal doesn’t default to the NYC/LA/quaint small town America, but instead uses El Paso, Marfa, Austin, and Dallas from Texas; Nopales, AZ; and Atlanta as well a bit in D.C., Rome, and even Russia. His characters are incredibly diverse, from a bad-ass female adrenaline junkie veteran to a Latino political operative to a Catholic priest. Everything and everyone is very well-integrated into the plot and the characters all drive the plot forward or add an important element to the book. They’re also all charismatic and/or likable; the book may be a satire but the characters feel like real people, not caricatures.
But let’s talk about what this book is not. This book isn’t a genre novel; it’s neither horror nor post-apocalyptic. It has all the elements at the beginning but that’s not where Villareal is taking the story at all. In fact, there’s no clear resolution or response to the vampires at the end – there’s room for a sequel but I think the book would work equally well as a stand alone. It is first and foremost a satire, using the NOBI virus and vampires as a vehicle to provoke critical thought.
If you’re looking for a genre vampire novel, a horror novel, or if you want to be swept away entirely into a fantasy world, then alas, this may not be the book for you. If you’re looking for a smart, fresh take on vampires, a breakout new author whose been on everyone’s must-read list, or just excellent shade thrown on American society and politics, then absolutely pick up this book.