Sunday, December 23, 2012

Anno Dracula


  So the rundown is as follows:

      The book is a really good adventure story with tons of extra material packed in, to the point of maybe being overstuffed. While initially starting cynical and dark, the pace picks up quickly and the book is too much fun to be overshadowed by its faults. While occasionally too clever for itself, it is still very clever, and that is something that should be commended. You will enjoy this. You should definitely try reading it. The author's a true lover of pop-culture, and it helps that he's a brilliant writer who has a good understanding of tension and narrative. In a year of books that I have really enjoyed reading, this stands out as one of the top three of its class (and yes, it's one of my top three of the year despite it coming out close to twenty years ago. Quiet, you.). More, as always, below.

"Children? If you can live forever, surely children are superfluous to requirements."
- Arthur Holmwood, Lord Godalming

     I think Kim Newman and I would have some very interesting conversations. I'm a fan of his work, have been for a long time...and I think I covered most of that here. While I had attempted his Anno Dracula series many times over, I have to admit I was daunted by the grim nature of the setting (vampires rule England, and not particularly nice ones) and by the sheer density of the work. I thought I'd have to sift through Newman's other novels, things like The Vampire Genevieve and The Diogenes Club1 before I got into it. But there was something I realized in sitting down to read Anno Dracula for review: if the first book of a series can't stand up on its own, if the key book in a fictional universe cannot exist without a thousand other supporting texts being read first, the issue isn't with my not understanding it. The issue would be with the book itself, and such a thing shouldn't keep me from reading the book. Armed with my new understanding, I picked up the new Titan Books edition of the book and launched myself back into reading it posthaste.

          And it is brilliant. Don't get me wrong, it's about as dense as I thought it might be, but it's dense for a completely different reason. And it's certainly not as impenetrable as it initially seemed. In fact, it's quite accessible. But if you know your literature and a small helping of pop culture, ah...

          Anno Dracula by Kim Newman starts us off with a murder. The murderer in question is immediately known to us: Doctor Seward, the lancet-wielding physician from Bram Stoker's classic novel Dracula. In his paranoid, desperate prose, he narrates a scene in first person where he picks up a vampire prostitute and vivisects her with a silver-plated scalpel. Seward, Van Helsing, Harker, and all the rest failed you see, and the dreaded Count Dracula then entered into a relationship with Queen Victoria, becoming the Lord Prince Consort and Lord Protector of the British Empire.

               In no short order, Dracula's kin and the repulsive Carpathian Guard take control of the country, Van Helsing's head occupies a spike outside the palace, and dissenters (including a certain Great Detective and his doctor companion) are put into prison camps with names like "Devil's Dike". Seward is reduced to murdering prostitutes and conducting deranged autopsies to find some way to stem the vampire tide, recording all his diaries to phonograph.

        Meanwhile, elder vampire Genevieve Dieudonne must work with Charles Beauregard of the Diogenes Club to untangle a series of grisly murders perpetrated by a man they all call "The Silver Knife", a Jack the Ripper-style killer who dissects his vampire prostitute victims. The murders throw an already-brewing class struggle into further chaos, threatening both the crown and the stability of London as various groups try to ferret out the killer and keep everything from descending into turmoil. A power struggle between the secret societies and not-so-secret political groups is threatening to engulf everything, and in the end, both Genevieve and Beauregard will have to contend with forces far beyond even their reckoning if they hope to restore order and bring the killer to justice. 

          I suppose what I like most about the book is the density and complexity of it. It's an adventure story about finding a serial killer (a serial killer we know the identity of from the very first chapter), but it also manages to be more than that. As one peels back the layers, it's a commentary on the political climate of the British Empire under Victoria, a shared-universe story bringing together just about every fictional character who could feasibly fit into the time period2, an alternate-history work based on Dracula, an exploration of a fantastical totalitarian regime, and also manages to get in references to German expressionism3 and British theatre. Now, no one has to know all the references to enjoy the story...actually, I should stress that. It deserves its own line:


          But it definitely adds to the fun, and it's part of the reason I enjoy the book. Newman's clearly a culture nerd, and I'm a sucker for shared universes. And more than that, he does his research, despite taking minor liberties with the character of Seward to fit the Jack the Ripper myth (and some other liberties here and there). It's the same reason I like Tim Powers...the myth has some kind of basis outside the completely fictional, and it feels like it's got a better footing as a result. 

          Another thing I like is the voice. Despite being in third-person point of view for all but a few chapters (the ones with Seward as narrator), the limited viewpoint keeps us in the character's heads and gives us a good sense of the voice they use. Genevieve, despite her slightly-cynical outlook towards London, has a very lyrical tone of voice, a direct contrast to the cynical, paranoid rants of Doctor Seward and the more businesslike tone of Charles Beauregard. Even the weirdly detached tone of Arthur Holmwood (Lord Godalming) fits the character in the work. It's nice to see the third-person viewpoint match up with the character in question, as even in a limited view, people tend to subtly inject omniscient information. This isn't a bad thing, but the tighter control you have over the narrative, the better off it will be. 

          Which leads nicely into the next point: The narrative. Newman has amazing control over a narrative and voice-- this was on display a little in the aforelinked Life's Lottery-- but it wasn't as obvious there, as the reader had to interact with the narrative heavily for the whole thing to work. In this, Newman creates a world of grim, cynical certainty. At the outset, Dracula is pegged as an insane tyrant, but well-established. The various characters inhabiting the world are mixed in terms of morality, but most of them are evil or at best, insane. Excluding two of the three protagonists, of course. But through the narrative, Newman manages to inject a certain amount of uncertainty. The question of "will our heroes catch the killer and unravel the plot behind him?" replaces "how will all these various plots fail?" I was genuinely surprised by the twists and turns in the plotline, ending in a place that I could not have predicted from the opening chapters. And, as you know, if a book manages to stump me, it becomes one of my all-time favorites.

          The one issue I have with the book is the relentlessly cynical tone of the scene-setting, but this has to do more with my multiple attempts to read it and the mindset I was in at the time. It's a pretty grim start-- in short order you find that Britain is a totalitarian state full of vampires, "the warm" are seen as second-class citizens, and several other disheartening things. However, all is not lost, even here. Newman manages to infuse his cynicism (apparently the book came from him going "there's no way in hell these idiots would be able to take down Count Dracula" after reading Dracula) with a decent helping of black humor, and the book carries through. Also, it's kind of meant to be disturbing. The country is ruled by evil vampires.

          The other issue is that it's in fact too clever. I think part of the thing for me is the literary Kuleshov effect I mentioned last week-- Newman isn't so much making characters sometimes as he is just playing with existing ones, with all the emotions that come from that built right in. It's a little cheap, but if "being too clever" were a crime, I'd have already been sentenced, so I can't fault him for putting some cool ideas into practice and them paying off quite well.

          So in the end, this is a book you should definitely find and read. It's enjoyable, disturbing, and a lot of fun to get through, and in the end it's that final one that matters the most-- this book is fun. It's a densely-packed book full of characters that, recognizable or no, are memorable. And it's got a plot with a few tricks and twists up its sleeve, and that's never a bad thing. 

I am going off for Christmas holidays, and I wish all of you well

- Brain Thief by Alexander Jablokov
- The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

And many others to come


1A collection of short stories written about the secretive organization with ties to the crown, hidden inside a gentleman's club.
2 As well as one from the Warhammer universe...shhh...
3Check out the sequence with Fu Manchu, "Basher" Moran, and James Moriarty. Totally a reference to Fritz Lang's classic movie M
4And now your eyes probably hurt. Sorry.

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