Anno Dracula

Written by Kim Newman

First published by Titan Books in 1992


Crow character_001The book flits between multiple points of view so it’s difficult to narrow down the characters that need to be discussed. I’ve managed to narrow it down to six and I still think I’m missing a few. Just take my word for it that all points of view come from different well-developed characters that never get boring.

One of the most frequent points of view is from Charles Beauregard, a spy for the Diogenes Club and a widower on the point of marrying his dead wife’s cousin (which was only just legal in 1888). It’s made very clear that Charles is still scarred by the loss of his previous wife (Pamela) in childbirth and he got engaged to someone who, though physically similar, has nothing in common with her. Still, despite that lapse of judgement, Charles proves himself a very capable agent. He’s observant, clever, non-judgemental and just as good at solving problems with diplomacy as he is with a pistol. He serves to provide a good neutral perspective on the changing times as he neither sides with the vampires nor with ‘the warm’ in the fights but claims only to support his queen. What he is looking for in life (which he failed to find in his fiancée) is an equal and, unfortunately, Victorian society provides very few women up to the task.

So, a woman from another time is more suitable. Genevieve Dieudonne is the principle vampire point of view in this book and an unusual vampire at that. She’s an elder vampire (older than Dracula) but, unlike nearly every elder in the book, identifies more with the lower classes of society. The centuries haven’t hardened her, only made her more pragmatic, and she still cries for those she can’t save. She’s wise, kind and unafraid to fight to defend herself or others. As Charles said, she is a do-er, not a bystander, and, as such, makes her a perfect partner for him, both romantically and professionally. While she’s no Sherlock Holmes, she’s certainly very observant but, if she has a fault, it’s to think the best of people too often. Which is why she didn’t see Jack the Ripper, despite him being right under her nose.

While Genevieve is ahead of her time in every sense, Penelope Churchward (Charles’ fiancée) is very much a victim of hers. She acts just as Victorian etiquette dictate, spouting epithets like ‘working is for women who can’t get husbands’ and making her ignorance a matter of pride (she reads nothing but ‘improving books’). You have to wonder what on earth Charles saw in her. In the wrong writer’s hands, she could have become very annoying as she’s desperate for advancement (her main motive for turning into a vampire), acts very pettishly and possesses a very snobbish manner. However, while she’s not altogether likeable, it is easy to understand her. She’s living under her dead cousin’s shadow, after all, and her tendency to not ask the right questions can be blamed on her upbringing. She does learn a little more meaningful agency during the book as she takes matters into her own hands and, in a curious inversion of the norm, forces a vampire to turn her. Unfortunately, her first attempt at autonomy does not end well but there is a lot of potential for development there.

We see a lot of downward development on Jack Seward. Through his sections (done in phonograph just like in Dracula), we see his mental disintegration born out of desperate longing for Lucy Westenra and his failure to stop Dracula. He vents his anguish on the prostitutes of Whitechapel, becoming Jack the Ripper (no, that’s not a spoiler). He sees himself as a surgeon, trying to cut out the ‘cancerous growth’ of vampirism in society and undo the failures of his past, but it’s very obvious that there is misogyny and frustrated sexual desire under the surface. In the end, he doesn’t cut a very scary figure but rather a tragic one.

There are three more characters I must touch upon before moving on. The first is Seward’s partner-in-failure, Lord Godalming. Unlike Jack, he reacted to Dracula’s victory by trying to endear himself to the vampire elite, even turning vampire himself, to try and erase his ‘unfortunate past’ with Van Helsing. He offers the reader a good view into the political world of this altered London and, while he’s clever enough to use diplomacy to get him out of trouble, he’s not as clever as he thinks he is. The second and third characters are Kostaki and McKenzie, a Captain of Dracula’s Carpathian Guard and a Scotland Yard Inspector respectively. I love the friendship between these two. They should be enemies as they both have very conflicting views on vampirism but they still found common ground in the fact that their countries had been devoured by empires (Moldavia by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Scotland by the British Empire) and that they consider their superiors ridiculous. Despite their differences, they are both very principled people and their conversations are fascinating as they pose serious questions to one another on their loyalties. Though their parts are comparatively minor, I really love reading their segments and they both deserved better.

All of the characters have distinctive voices and all provide a fascinating insight into this alternate world. I can’t think of a single bad thing to say about them. They all showed some development in some way with plenty of potential for more in later books.

10 out of 10 drops

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Crow character research_001It’s a very daunting task to fact-check this book but the author has very kindly provided a list of annotations at the back, including some deleted and alternative scenes. This focuses mostly on all the literary characters from the author’s other works (like Genevieve, who came from a series of Warhammer novels), from others’ work and obscure historical figures. He includes quite a few names that I didn’t know too like Mrs Amworth and Barbara di Cilly, including some character names from vampire porn films (like Iorga), so his annotations and acknowledgements provide a good jumping off point to new books.

On the historically factual points, the author proves accurate too. There was a real ‘Bloody Sunday’ riot in 1887 that was violently put down by Sir Charles Warren (the police commissioner who would resign after being unable to catch the real Jack the Ripper) but the real life riot was over unemployment and not a protest against Queen Victoria’s vampirism. The timeline of Jack the Ripper’s killings are also accurate and even include the names of those only suspected to be victims rather than confirmed and the names of the main suspects in the real life case. All but one victim is accurate but Lulu Schon was a fictional character from an opera who became a victim of Jack the Ripper so it’s understandable why she’s there.

The book occasionally provides a good insight into legal history too. I never knew that, until 1907, it was illegal for a man to marry their dead wife’s sister as that was considered practically incest. So, Charles’ engagement to Penelope is only just legal because she and Pamela are cousins. Sticking with law, it turns out that, until 1885, the law on private homosexual acts was quite permissive. Even when a surge of homophobia made these acts illegal, the punishments were certainly never as harsh as death. Still, it’s understandable why Dracula would think this way. His history as Vlad Tepes, though only briefly touched upon, is also accurate.

It’s clear that the author has done their research on vampire lore too while putting his own spin to it by adding bloodlines, meaning that different vampires can have a variety of abilities and disabilities. One thing they all have in common is a severe aversion to silver, which poisons them and is often fatal. This is aligned with common myths, as, since silver has purifying qualities, it’s natural to think that it’s an anathema to ‘impure’ vampires.

Again, I’ve no problems to point out here. The fictional and historical elements are woven together expertly so it’s hard to tell the difference, which is certainly in a good thing in this book.

10 out of 10 drops

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Crow character originality_001Vampire coming out into the open isn’t an original concept, nor is writing a story around Jack the Ripper. However, the method of vampires coming out is a new one: Dracula overcoming Van Helsing and marrying Queen Victoria. The most original factor in this reimagining of the trope is that not a lot changes. Even though vampires are preferred and promoted over the ‘warm’, the poor are still poor, the rich are still rich, the stupid are still stupid and murderers still murder. Hunting a murderer is certainly not a new thing in vampire fiction but I think the fact that it’s a ‘warm’ person preying on vampires is a nice little inversion.

Most of the vampire tropes are followed like an aversion to sunlight and casting no reflection but the author puts a new spin on it by introducing bloodlines, producing a whole variety of vampires with different abilities. Some can shapeshift, some can cast a reflection and some can dispel all previous mortal illnesses but others can’t. An interesting concept, as is the fact that Dracula’s bloodline is not the strongest, only the most virulent, and described as like ‘grave mould’ with ‘newborns’ carrying over illnesses from their ‘warm’ and dying earlier than their cousins from other bloodlines. One common factor they share is the aforementioned aversion to sunlight, which fades after many centuries and gives the elders an advantage over the newborns. A common recurring factor but not a tiresome cliche. The vampires themselves, though stronger than the warm, still have their weaknesses. Drinking tainted blood makes them sick, silver and wood could be fatal and a blow to any of the vital organs with such a weapon would suffice to kill them. Not to mention, vampires are thoroughly unromanticised. In fact, some of the elders among Dracula’s group are quite ridiculous (I’m thinking of the creepy Vardelak in particular).

Speaking of un-romanticising, the one turning scene is extremely gruesome, speaking more about expelling the body’s waste rather than giving in to temptation. Not to mention, it’s the human that initiates the turning rather than the vampire. Nice little inversion, there. Yes, there is a human/vampire romance but, unlike most couples, the development of Charles and Genevieve’s romance feels very natural. They’re psychologically equals and they help each other through several tough situations. In one memorable moment, Charles saves Genevieve from a Chinese hopping vampire (good to include vampires from other cultures) simply through diplomacy, which makes a good anti-climax.

I’m sorry to say that there is one annoying cliche in this book: the overarching presence of the Diogenes Club and their members pulling too many strings behind the scenes, which cheapens the action somewhat. Still, that’s just a personal nitpick.

9 out of 10 drops

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World Building

Crow world building_001You’d expect nothing less than buckets of world building to create an alternative Victorian London and the book certainly provides. Through several voices, we get a view from every angle in society from the slums to Parliament and are shown just how vampirism affects (or doesn’t affect) every aspect of life. What I like best is that the author includes a few chapters dedicated to telling the story from a Jack the Ripper victim’s point of view. It reminds us that his victims were (both figuratively and literally) real people and not once does the author invite the reader to judge them negatively for their profession.

It’s very easy to judge the people at the top negatively. Vampirism does not take away incompetence and we get an excellent view into Sir Charles Warren’s inappropriate and outdated military tactics applied to a city on the brink of revolution to disastrous effect. The Carpathian Guard make things even worse by adding a medieval attitude of ‘execute-first-prove-guilt-later’. At one point, one of the officers states in high office that they should kill all accused and let God decide who’s guilty. An attitude which is neither welcome nor helpful in that political climate. As well as following a murder mystery, the author also represents accurately how revolution starts not by a single triggering moment but by a slowly escalating chain of events and authority’s inability to rein in public fury.

The new vernacular used throughout sticks easily such as ‘warm’ to describe normal humans, ‘newborns’ to describe new vampires and ‘elders’ to describe old ones. I find myself using those words to describe other books’ vampires.

As I’ve said, it’s clear the author has done a lot of research on Victorian London and on the Jack the Ripper timeline. Not once, however, does it feel like the author is dumping the information on the reader but he carefully filters it through the narrative, all while keeping his focus on the narrative.

10 out of 10 drops

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Crow story_001As I mentioned above, the identity of Jack the Ripper is revealed straightaway so the reader is not invited to guess who the murderer is but to understand his motives. Jack Seward does not so much deflect suspicion from his character as completely fall under everyone’s radar since the characters have so much else to deal with: the escalating tensions between vampires and ‘the warm’, relationships blossoming and deteriorating, Chinese hopping vampires sent to settle a score, e.t.c. Apart from a rather clumsy scene where it seemed obvious that his victim was pointing out her killer and yet no one saw it, it’s easy to see why no one would suspect him.

All the chapters are divided between over half a dozen points of view, providing us with a good view of all walks of vampire Victorian life, giving us all kinds of opinions on the changes from Mary-Jane Kelly’s vain hope for a better future to Charles Beauregard’s dull acceptance that things never change. Only one chapter doesn’t follow this rule. The short chapter just before the climax is told in a dispassionate, descriptive way, almost like a cutting from a newspaper, but this only makes the impact of the next chapter (and the next chapter’s title) hit harder and it’s very effective. The ending feels very neat. It’s prevented from being too neat however by the second big climax, which promises a lot of turmoil in future books.

There are quite a lot of action scenes, a lot of violent gory ones (more than the usual vampire novel fare) and a couple of sexual scenes. One in particular is a very unsettling look into a hidden brothel with male underage workers so consider yourself warned.

If you feel you can handle it and you want an excellent story with a good romance, a richly developed world, an excellent insight into the real historical period and well-examined characters, this is essential reading and what a vampire novel should be.

9 out of 10 drops

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Overall = 48 drops – AB Negative


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