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Warning: This review contains spoilers!
I’ve just finished reading Anno Dracula by (Mr.) Kim Newman, a big doorstopper of a book crammed to the gills with all manner of Victorian characters, both real and imagined- from Charles Algernon Swinburne, Jack the Ripper and Oscar Wilde, Mina Harker, Mycroft Holmes (brother of Sherlock) and, of course, Dracula himself- cleverly-wrought as the literary Dracula was, according to some, based on accounts of Jack the Ripper’s real-life appearance. The novel imagines an alternative London, set in 1888, the year of the Ripper murders, in the slums of Whitechapel. Prince Albert is dead, and Queen Victoria has remarried….Prince Dracula (who has a gruesome love of impaling those who get in his way.) Fictional vampires have crawled out of the Gothic woodwork and flocked to the palace, to curry favour with the new Prince Consort, whilst many prominent members of society (again, both real and imagined) have elected to turn into vampires, reflecting the shifting devolution of a society already tainted by prostitution, murder and vice. Into this bloody mess comes Charles Beauregard, a spy for Mycroft’s shady Diogenes Club, and Genevieve Dieudonne, an elegant vampire who comes from an older and far more pure bloodline that Dracula’s- whose ‘get’ (i.e. victims) often sprout hair, shapeshift into bats and wolves, and generally go mad. (I particularly liked the way the brutal shapeshifting was described.)Both Dieudonne and Beauregard try to solve the mystery of the Ripper killings- in this universe, it’s not human prostitutes that are picked off and slaughtered, but mortal ones that have turned into vampires. (An interesting twist, I thought, given that some believe the vampire myth to be inspired, or at least highlighted, by the Ripper.) We know who the (mortal) Ripper is immediately, and have to watch his descent into madness, while at the same time we learn more about his backstory (without giving too much away!) and the plot of the original Dracula.
Having done some research on Victorian London for my writing, I like the little ‘in-jokes’ of fictional Victorian characters, mixed with real-life ones (and anything with Wilde is always a winner.) However, I did feel as though at points the plot was messy, too crammed full of minor characters that seemed to have no real benefit to the story- for example, the introduction of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll never really seemed to go anywhere, and some characters I hadn’t actually heard of, (for example, the original character whom the Prime Minister, Lord Ruthven was based on) and had to read the notes at the back to fully understand. (There are a lot of copious notes, which I thought was a little self-indulgent- I mean, does the book really pages on why Newman included a hopping vampire? Apparently so, but I’m still not sure why- and it almost seemed laughable to me, and then the vampire suddenly disappeared, once the Diogenes Club ordered it to stop attacking Genevieve! With no real explanation as to why it had nearly killed her!) Charles Beauregard was also, I believe, a rather dull character- I thought of him as ‘Boreregard’ mostly. I also found the romance between him and Genevieve cloying and a little unneccessary- they had little sexual chemistry for me, and it would have been nice to have her as a strong, independent woman, autonomous of any love interest. But having said that, the plot- when it wasn’t introducing people for the sake of it- was neat and well-researched, with a few shock moments (an execution outside the notorious Cleveland Street brothel, for example) and some genuinely clever writing.
Overall rating: 8 out of 10. (With a gold star for effort!)