1972: An American teenager living in Amsterdam stumbles across a strange book in her diplomat father’s library. All the pages are blank save those in the centre, which show an engraving of a fierce dragon clutching a banner emblazoned with a single word: DRAKULYA. Even more intriguing is the packet of letters with the book, addressed to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor’. When she asks her father about them, he begins to take her with him on his trips across Europe, telling her the story of how he came into possession of both book and letters. Piece by piece, she hears the tale of his thesis adviser, Professor Bartholomew Rossi, who once received a similar book and who vanished after giving the letters to his student; and of how he, Paul, decided to set off on a rescue mission accompanied by Rossi’s unacknowledged daughter Helen. She also discovers firsthand the kinds of warnings delivered to those who inquire too closely into the significance of ‘Drakulya’.
Then her father also disappears during a trip to Oxford, and on returning to Amsterdam she raids his desk and finds a packet of letters in which he continues his tale and reveals part of why - but not where – he’s gone. But she’s seen enough of what he was reading in the Oxford archives to work out the rest, and sets out after him, pursued and then accompanied by the Oxford grad student assigned to escort her home. Along the way they read the letters, about how Paul and Helen travelled through Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria in search of any trace not just of Rossi, but of Vlad the Impaler, the infamous fifteenth-century Wallachian ruler on whom the legend of Dracula was based. For Rossi’s research had led him to believe that Vlad might not be dead . . .
Having previously encountered vampires only by way of Anne Rice and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it was good to read another, more historical, perspective. And ‘historical’ is definitely the word for this book; it’s loaded with information about mediaeval Eastern European history and the Ottoman Empire. Vlad’s antics - in life or in undeath – weren’t cheerful reading but they were interesting, and I now have a mental list of topics to read more on (him and the Ottomans, and I’d love to read a non-fiction book about the development of the vampire legend). The first part of the book made for compulsive reading, with information being revealed bit by chilling bit. Unfortunately once the nameless narrator and companion Stephen Barley found themselves stranded in the middle of the French countryside after dodging one of Dracula’s minions, it all went a bit lopsided. Letter after letter after letter, then a few sentences or paragraphs about what she and Barley were doing, then letter after letter after letter. I actually began flipping through the pages in search of any on which every paragraph didn’t begin with quotation marks. It started to feel like, rather than being the main character as I had believed, she was just a means of displaying the story of Paul and Helen. Some of the balance was restored by the end, with a nice twist, although the final confrontation had a touch of the deus ex machina about it. And I never could quite work out why Rossi would return to a line of research from which he had been comprehensively scared off. Is scholarly rivalry that strong?
But in spite of its flaws, this was still a book worth reading; after all, I do give extra points to anything that offers up some history and makes me want to head to the non-fiction section of the library. But if history’s not your thing you probably won’t find it as entertaining.