Book: “Five Midnights” by Ann Dávila Cardinal
Publishing Info: Tor Teen, June 2019
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: Five friends cursed. Five deadly fates. Five nights of retribución.
If Lupe Dávila and Javier Utierre can survive each other’s company, together they can solve a series of grisly murders sweeping though Puerto Rico. But the clues lead them out of the real world and into the realm of myths and legends. And if they want to catch the killer, they’ll have to step into the shadows to see what’s lurking there—murderer, or monster?
Five Midnights is a “wickedly thrilling” (William Alexander) novel based on the el Cuco myth set against the backdrop of modern day Puerto Rico.
Review: The first time I encountered the el Cuco folktale was in Stephen King’s book “The Outsider”. While I really liked what he did with it and REALLY liked “The Outsider”, I did see how it could be a little problematic that a white guy was taking a Latinix/Portuguese mythology and twisting it to his own needs. Because of this, when I heard about “Five Midnights” by Ann Dávila Cardinal, I definitely wanted to give it a whirl, given that she is of Puerto Rican descent and sets her story about el Cuco in modern day Puerto Rico. Luckily my local library system had some copies checked in despite its new status, and it didn’t take long to arrive.
“Five Midnights” has a lot of strong points and a lot of potential for YA horror fans. The story is both unique but also timely. You have an old school ‘boogeyman’ story that blends with social themes that are affecting Puerto Rico of the 21st century, such as poverty, the drug trade, and wealthy (read: white) developers coming in and creating further divides between the haves and have nots. You have two perspectives you are seeing within this story: there is Lupe, a Vermont based teenager whose father is Puerto Rican who is visiting her policeman uncle, and Javier, a local who has fought against poverty and drug addiction and is now in recovery. It is mostly Javier and those in his group that reflect the struggles that his community is facing, as he and his friends have fallen into dangerous behaviors due to desperation and circumstance. It is also Javier’s friend group that has started to end up dead, one by one, the targets of a potential murderer, or perhaps supernatural being based in the folklore they grew up with (el Cuco!). Along with Javier is a girl named Marisol, the sister of one of Javier’s dead friends, whose rage and resentment towards their circumstances is channeled towards Lupe, an outsider from America who is also white passing. I really liked that Cardinal took these social issues and not only put them into the narrative, but was able to show how the story of el Cuco could be tied to them, given that it is said el Cuco targets misbehaving children. And honestly, I really like the el Cuco myth, and since it’s still kind of new to me I liked seeing a new interpretation that is based more on what the original folklore is as opposed to Stephen King’s version of it. It makes me want to go out and learn more about the mythology as a whole.
That said, there were definitely some weaker aspects of this book as well. The mystery itself wasn’t REALLY a mystery, as it’s clear from the get go that this isn’t a serial killer or human antagonist, but el Cuco committing the murders. The reasons are sound, and I liked the reveal of the origins, but I never really got completely invested in whether or not Javier and his friends were going to make it out alive or not. I think this is in part because the characterizations weren’t as strong as I would have liked. Javier was fine, but he wasn’t very fleshed out. And Lupe, while the other protagonist, was a bit harder to like, if only because she never really tried to understand nor was totally called out on her privileges, be it that she is an American citizen or that she is white passing. For me the most interesting character was Marisol, but even she never really got past being a two dimensional quasi-antagonist, especially since her antagonism is based in a very understandable anger about her disenfranchised circumstances. On top of that, she and Lupe could have very easily had an interesting relationship where they could have learned a lot from each other. Instead, it was merely two strong willed girls butting heads, which was disappointing.
The negatives aside, I definitely appreciated “Five Midnights” and the story that it told from perspectives we don’t see as much in YA literature. It has some well done scary moments, and some relevant themes interwoven with the scares.
Rating 6: A compelling and original horror story with some well done social commentary. While the characters weren’t as fascinating as I had hoped, the el Cuco myth was a true strength of this novel.
“Five Midnights” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists as of now, but I think that it would fit in on “Books Set in Puerto Rico”.
Find “Five Midnights” at your library using WorldCat!