Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s SILVER NITRATE is a slow-burning story about film history and the corruption lurking behind the glitz and glam of the entertainment industry, of cults and cultic syncretism, of magic and desire and the human impulse to cling to a destructive past rather than to grow toward a possible future.
Montserrat, a punky, horror movie enthusiast, and sound engineer and her former soap opera star friend, Tristán, meet the retired director of cult horror movies, Abel Urueta. One of Urueta’s films was never released, and stories of it became urban legends. In the course of asking about that lost film, Montserrat and Tristán discover its history involves cults, Nazis, and dark magic. Dark magic that their investigations might just reawaken.
There’s several lenses to view this work through.
The story is constantly one of looking back at a past that is gone but that the characters cannot or will not acknowledge is gone. The title of the book, SILVER NITRATE, is taken from a particular type of film that was phased out of use due to its propensity to catch fire. In fact, it’s noted that the images recorded on silver nitrate film are crisper, the blacks richer, the experience more immersive than modern film. Tristán is haunted by trauma and loss. Urueta is haunted by the failure of his directorial career. Other characters refuse to accept their youthful years are behind them, or their time as powerful mystics is past. Everyone, to some extent, is viewing their past as if it were recorded on silver nitrate film, and refusing to allow it to be something that is gone, unattainable, unchangeable. And, just as silver nitrate film is volatile by nature occasionally burning what it recorded away to ash, so too are the characters’ pasts volatile and subject to a conflagration that forces them to process what came before and what looms ahead.
Also, the magic “system” that is explored is almost self-referential, as though the work knowingly satirizes the SFF community’s interest in both the “hard” (e.g. Brandon Sanderson in MISTBORN) vs “numinous” (e.g. Patrick Rothfuss’ true names in THE NAME OF THE WIND) debate. The story explicitly discusses the lineage of late 19th Century and early 20th Century esoteric mysticism, from Helena Blavatsky through Aliester Crowley, and its pathway to Nazism. The manual of magic that Montserrat reads is evocative of “modern” esoteric mysticism (e.g. Order of Nine Angles and their ilk), and the overwrought language and references to divine motherhood, of the four elements, and so on is almost silly. And yet, is it any more silly than asking the reader to seamlessly acknowledge that some people can ingest iron and burn it to pull metals through the air? That truly understanding the very fundamental nature of the wind and knowing the name that captures that nature allows you to bend it to your will?
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s past books have burned brightly to award nominations and bestseller lists. I expect this to do the same. SILVER NITRATE releases on July 18, 2023. Pre-order it from your local independent bookseller, Seattle if you must, Barnes and Noble, or Bookshop.org.