Review: Category Five by Ann Davila Cardinal

Category Five by Ann Dávila Cardinal (Tor Teen 2020)

Reviewed by Maayan D’Antonio

Lupe Dávila returns for another summer in Puerto Rico. But once again things are not quiet on the island. Ten months after Hurricane Maria, a category five storm, the island is still struggling to recover. On top of that there are dead people popping up on Vieques, a small island off the northeastern coast of the main island of Puerto Rico. This time Lupe’s Tío, police chief Dávila, knows better than to try and keep Lupe away from the investigation. The first murder claims three Caucasian college boys at the bioluminescent bay. The murder scene is not too far away from construction on a new resort.

Javier Utierre is angry. After El Cuco things were getting better, he and his mom were getting close, college was going well. Then Maria hit, and all the islanders’ lives changed. Now Javier is working in construction at the new fancy resort on Vieques, owned by a rich developer that has hungrily bought up lands on the island in the devastating aftermath of the storm. 

Marisol is on a mission to fill her petition with names in order to stop companies from attempting to profit from the devastation of the hurricane. When Marisol goes to visit her great-grandmother, she takes a moment to talk to Abuelita, one of the other residents at the home. Abuelita seems distraught, claiming that her own grandmother is on Vieques, and she is angry. Her statement leaves Marisol shivering despite the heat.  

But it’s not just the murders that have unsettled the locals on the small island of Vieques. People have been seeing a strange blueish-green glow and something moving within it, something that has been seen once before, long ago. Are the murders happening by the hands of something supernatural or by the hands of a human? And can they figure out the mystery before Lupe herself becomes the next victim?

Ann Dávila Cardinal (Five Midnights, 2019) has married political, cultural and historical themes into a glowing horror laced tale. In the interview I had with Cardinal she explained that while she was working on Category Five (Tor Teen, 2020) she met a woman from St. Croix, whose family was originally from Vieques. “They were farmers, but in 1941 the US Government seized ¾ of the island, including her family’s land, so they could build their Navy base. They were given $50 an acre and forcibly relocated to unfarmable land in St. Croix. There was still such deep-seated resentment among her family. 3,000 people were displaced. I told her I would include it in the book since there is little mention out there and this was colonialism at its absolute worst.” Though the Navy is now gone, as we see in the book, the scars and trauma remain and the continual quest to develop the land only furthers these feelings.  

For a second book, Category Five came about fast, published less than a year after the first. “Since the characters were already established it came much easier. The interesting thing is that they had evolved all on their own in between the two books. I found that Lupe had mellowed, as well as Marisol—after being freed from the curse featured in the first book.” Javier on the other hand, used to be laid back but after the hurricane he, rightfully so, becomes angry. “It is through his character that I channeled my anger about how badly Puerto Rico was supported after Maria.”

Cardinal, like Lupe, felt frustration with being unable to do anything from so far away. “I had frequent calls with my cousin Tere in those early weeks, so I brought much of what my family had to deal with into the narrative. I did not live through that nightmare directly. But if my novel can, in some small way, increase awareness of the island and her people, I’ll be happy.”

As for going back to the island, it wasn’t until the February of the following year that Cardinal made her return. “My family was dealing with enough at that time, they didn’t need me and my husband there too. But even in February the island looked like it had been gnawed on. The power went off at least three times a week while we were there, and we lost cell service in Luquillo for two days. I said to my cousin Ana Luisa, ‘I mean, what if someone had to call an ambulance?’ She responded with a pat on my arm, ‘Oh don’t worry, they would not have come anyway.’” Cardinal’s husband did repair work as his way of giving back. Even now, almost three years later, Puerto Rico is still not fully recovered because of the ousting a corrupt governor, a series of earthquakes, and now the pandemic. “Puerto Rico is a country that has resilience built into its very foundation and the DNA of its people.”

As to helping with recovery efforts Cardinal has a few things in mind: The Hispanic Federation’s Unidos disaster relief efforts. “They’ve been very responsive to the different needs of the communities.” Boricua en la Luna, a fundraising anthology of Puerto Rican writers, edited by Elena Aponte, for which Cardinal had the honor of writing a foreword. “They made a film called We Are Still Here/Aquí Estamos that I donated to from my advance for Category Five. It’s a film by Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi about a group of young people in the mountain town of Comerío who became activists and mobilized to bring attention to the cause of post-hurricane Puerto Rico.” Check out the trailer and support its release in any way you can.

And of course, support more Puerto Rican writers. “I am looking forward to hearing more voices of Puerto Rican writers from the island in the coming years. I’ve been honored to meet many. I’m particularly excited about Amparo Ortiz’s young adult novel Blazewrath Games that is coming out on October 6th. Alternate world, Puerto Rican main character, and dragons? I’m IN!”

As for Lupe, Javier and Marisol, Cardinal has no plans for another adventure. “But my mother taught me to never say never! I’ve grown rather attached to them and wouldn’t mind exploring other island myths with them. I had great fun writing Carlos, and it would be fun to do a novel with some kind of supernatural force that seeps into the world of Reggaeton music. So, who knows!”  

For now, fans of Five Midnights won’t be disappointed, and if you missed the first one that’s okay, you won’t feel left behind.

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