Anno Dracula, Kim Newman

Pocket, 1992, 469 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-71591-7

An interesting trend in turn-of-the-millennium genre fiction is the fusion of different literary tools and assumptions to produce a result that isn’t quite one thing or another. Suddenly, dragons are over New York, being battled by alien-technology stealth bombers and causing a vampire to fall in love with a policewoman. Some readers love fusion, some can’t stand it.

One particularly popular type of fusion literature is steampunk, in which -roughly- contemporary SF elements are transplanted in Victorian England. Steam-driven spaceships are equipped with computers driven by pulley and lever, Jack the Ripper meets Sherlock Holmes, Queen Victoria makes a cameo appearance and there are enough in-jokes to satisfy anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the time.

Anno Dracula (perhaps the precursor of the fusion trend, dating back from 1992) goes beyond what eventually became the clichés of steampunk. Here, Kim Newman assumes that everything that happened in Bram Stoker’s Dracula was true, with one important difference; Vlad Tepes escaped the final showdown and using his aristocratic credentials, eventually married Queen Victoria. The England of Anno Dracula is now populated with a new nobility of vampires, with their assorted entourage dominating the country. But then, someone starts killing vampire prostitutes in Whitechapel…

In almost any way you choose to look at it, Anno Dracula is an exceptional book. The alternate history drawn by Newman is somewhat plausible (which is to say, as plausible as a vampire-drived story can be), fascinating and rather frightening. The details are well-positioned to give maximum depth to the story and wink at the knowledgeable reader. Jack the Ripper co-exists with Doctor Jeckyl, Mycroft Holmes, Queen Victoria, Bram Stoker and Van Helsing…

But it takes more than a neat steampunk universe to make a good book (witness Colin Greenland’s Harm’s Way) and fortunately, Newman also scores high on the more usual fictional standards. Anno Dracula is driven by unusually interesting characters, from a shadowy British special agent to a Vampire eldress to a genial newspaper reporter to an ambitious newly-vampirized doctor. Newman, despite setting his tale in Victoria England, wisely resists fluffing up his writing style, and Anno Dracula remains compulsively readable all the way through. The memorable conclusion is lavishly built-up and quite satisfying, finding victory where one wouldn’t expect.

Two sequels have been published to date (The Bloody Red Baron and Judgement of Tears) and if it is doubtful that they will be as enjoyable -most of the fun of Anno Dracula is in discovering the alternate history-, they certainly deserve a read based only on the first volume.

It’s worth noting that the enjoyment one will get from Anno Dracula is proportional to one’s existing knowledge of literary genre, Victorian England and vampire novels. Anno Dracula is akin to a graduate-level read in that it can be enjoyed by anyone, but contains so many references to other sources that readers with extra cultural baggage will get so much more out of it. A cursory knowledge of Stoker’s Dracula alone -if only from the movie version-, helps tremendously.

Fusing horror elements with SF world-building and a mystery structure, Kim Newman has achieved more than the simple addition of elements and produced a novel far above the rest of what one would usually find on the “horror” bookshelf. Anno Dracula simply has too much ambition beyond the simple scare to avoid being labelled a darn good book. Fascinating experiment, great entertainment or best-of-breed genre novel, it’s hard to overstate how Anno Dracula is so successful on so many levels. One of the best vampire books to date. Strongly recommended, for a wide array of readers.

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