Trigger warning for racism and hate crimes.
V. Castro’s unsettling The Queen of the Cicadas was not what I expected. The first half was what I expected; the latter half was a strange journey that I wouldn’t have seen coming in a million years. The two halves of the book are linked by an urban legend and an Aztec deity that both refuse to die. I loved the ideas Castro brought to bear in this novel—revenge, the power of women, storytelling—but I think this book tried to do too many things too quickly for it all to gel into a coherent narrative.
Belinda has had a rough life and is feeling worn down by all of the years looking for love, but she sucks it up to attend her best friend’s wedding at a restored farmhouse in rural Texas. After a night of wine and conversation, she learns that the farmhouse was the site of a hate crime back in 1952. The murder of Milagros Santos was so horrific (and the terrifying deaths of the perpetrators) that she became an urban legend: La Reina de las Chicharras, the Queen of Cicadas. She can be summoned like Bloody Mary, although no one knows what will happen if she appears.
Some investigation and a lot of bizarre, bloody occurrences bring Belinda and her new friend, Hector (owner of the Texas farmhouse), bring them both to Mictēcacihuātl, the Aztec lady of the dead. I was fascinated by the parts of this book that took Mictēcacihuātl and her story and transplanted them onto a modern horror story. In spite of the gore, I was hooked on this first half of the book. But when Mictēcacihuātl starts to plot a comeback for her goddesshood, things get really weird. So weird, in fact, that I started to lose interest, I’m sorry to say.
Terrible things happen to Milagros. Her death is one of the most frightening and gut-churning things I’ve ever read. Seeing her get creative revenge on the people who killed her was satisfying and engrossing, even if things were racing by so fast that there wasn’t a lot of time for emotional depth. And seeing her story inspire others to fight for Latino and Hispanic rights in the United States was stirring. I just didn’t understand the turn the narrative took in the middle towards the mystical and, frankly, woo-woo. No amount of energetic sex made up for the fact that the narrative was haring off into what felt like another genre entirely. When the book ended, I was left feeling like a lot of opportunities to deeply explore anti-Latino and anti-Hispanic racism, the crushingly hard life of farm workers, and revenge had been squandered.