This book was recommended to me by the owners of a gaming store (the Magic-and-Warhammer type), and I was eager to read it based on the premise of “va...more This book was recommended to me by the owners of a gaming store (the Magic-and-Warhammer type), and I was eager to read it based on the premise of “vampires are ‘out’ and taking over.” I knew that Dracula would be a character, and I didn’t mind that the rest of the Dracula cast appeared as well (in this version, Dracula’s invasion of England was successful, and he has married and turned Queen Victoria). What ended up bothering me was the ridiculous proliferation of spot-the-reference vampire appearances. Lord Ruthven is there, Carmilla gets mentioned, Lestat appears, and there are repeated litanies of vampires that include movie, novel and television characters large and small. Similarly, Jack the Ripper, Fu Manchu, Inspector Lestrade and Mycroft Holmes all appear (though not the good doctor or his detective friend; of course they would have solved the case too quickly). There are two major original characters, Beauregard the human spy and Dieudonné the vampire charity nurse. Unfortunately, neither of the two has much appeal or charisma. Dieudonné, of course, still looks 16 but has been a vampire for some 400 years; Beauregard spies for the British government on multiple continents. In fanfiction, Dieudonné would certainly be labeled a Mary Sue, and Beauregard is kept from Gary-Stu-ism by a mildly creepy engagement to his dead wife’s cousin.
In the story, the Jack the Ripper killings are reconfigured to be murders of vampire prostitutes, and though the reader knows the killer’s identity, the main characters’ search for the killer drives the plot. The concept that vampirism has spread to the lower classes, and that there is a class divide between vampires as much as there is a species divide between humans and vampires, is essentially interesting. But we come to know the lower-class vampires only through Dieudonné’s patronizing eyes (she is of a different ‘bloodline’ from Dracula, and refers to his blood as polluted), and given the rather disgusting afflictions that the poor vampires suffer (a half-bat child looms large), it’s hard to feel much for them beyond polite pity. Vampirism in this world does not always go well (the aforementioned afflictions), but again, there is little discussion of the potentially rich topic of risk versus reward; Beauregard discusses it only briefly with his fiancée. The Ripper murders are deemed important by virtue of the fact that they threaten the vampires’ façade of immortality, and indeed near the end of the story there are anti-vampire demonstrations by some humans. But all-out warfare never emerges, and the ultimate goal of the Diogenes Club (hey, another reference!) in sending Beauregard to investigate ends up being... kind-of flat.
In the end, my problem with this book is twofold. First, it isn’t coherent. It takes too much delight in name-checks of characters from older works, which may delight the well-read, but unfortunately annoy those of us who have not the massive mental bookshelf (and DVD rack, I suppose) of the author. Too many characters pass through the story with a bit of a thrill of recognition, but no development or plot movement. Dieudonné and Beauregard don’t grow as people, and their attempts to solve the ‘mystery’ are frustratingly slow and stupid, doubly so in that the reader already knows who it is. The book can’t decide if it is a political novel, a spy novel, a society novel, a murder mystery or something else, so bits of each are flashed before the reader and passed over. My second problem is that the book has so many nice opportunities for something interesting, but it drops the ball every time. Vampire class warfare? Totally fascinating! Any old schmoe can become a vampire? Give me a schmoe to care about! Vampirism: not all it’s cracked up to be? Refreshing! But none of these threads pan out satisfactorily. For the first time ever, I found myself wishing I’d read a Charlaine Harris novel just so I’d have some comparison for the ‘vampires-are-out’ trope.
Neil Gaiman is quoted on the cover praising the book, and I’m not surprised, in that he does a lot of work in the similar arena of revising-mythology. I’m not a huge fan of Gaiman’s more recent adult works, but little in modern literature visual or otherwise can compare to the beauty of the Sandman series. Though I didn’t get the references to comic book characters in that series, I did catch the mythological and literary references, and the repurposing of characters never bothered me. Gaiman’s own unique mythology of the Endless, and the persuasiveness of Dream as a character, were strong enough to make the other characters serve Dream’s story, rather than simply guest-starring. Newman’s narrative in Anno Dracula, and his original characters, just aren’t strong enough. I don’t give a shit about Dieudonné and Beauregard. I was rooting for Jack the Ripper’s character almost all the way through the book.
Finally, I think this book is interesting in that it has made me question the nature of fanfiction. Fanfiction is frequently derided, and often its reader-and-writership is described as predominately female. But Anno Dracula is, in my opinion, clearly a work of fanfiction (alternate-universe crossover with original characters), and its author as well as the people who recommended it to me most highly are all men. Does this mean that men are willing to read fanfiction if it isn’t described as such (alternate-history books always felt like fanfiction to me...)? Could there be a wider market for the ‘tamer’ types of fanfiction, or for fanfiction in longer form? There’s been a long tradition of writing new cases for Sherlock Holmes, and Gaiman repurposes Shakespeare and Aeschylus, all clearly in the public domain. Under the anxiety of influence, is everyone just writing fanfiction anyway?(less)