C. C. Humphreys - Vlad: The Last Confession


Genre: Historical Fiction
Synopsis: DRACULA. A name of horror, depravity and the darkest sensuality. Yet the real Dracula was just as alluring, just as terrifying, his story not of a monster but of a man - and a contradiction. For the one they called 'The Devil's Son' was both tyrant and lawgiver, crusader and mass slaughterer, torturer and hero, lover and murderer. His tale is told by those who knew him best. The only woman he ever loved, who he must sacrifice. His closest comrade and traitor. And his priest, betraying the secrets of the confessional to reveal the mind of the man history would forever remember as Tepes - 'The Impaler'.



It may be worth pointing out (though I wish I didn't have to) that this IS NOT A BOOK ABOUT VAMPIRES.
It's virtually common knowledge by now that Vlad Dracula did little to inspire the title character of Stoker's classic novel, but for those unfamiliar with Elizabeth Miller's work, it has been proved. Therefore, the association of Vlad's own name with vampies is unfair and inappropriate. This book is about the man, who was far more interesting than a vampire anyway. Yeah I went there. On with the review.

When I opened this book, and saw a three page Dramatis Personae and a map in the front, a bibliography, author's note and three pages of a limba Romanian glossary in the back, I'll admit, I thought the novel could turn out to be a heavy slog through over-researched and heavily detailed irrelevancies. Now, I feel bad even writing that in this review. Before I write any further, I would like to clearly state that this novel is as compelling and epic as the man himself. It gets 11 out of 5 shiny stars. Three characters are recovered from their little corners of existence, a forest, a convent, and a cell in the ground, to play the role of Vlad's biographers and confessors. Characters whose stories are as slowly and surely unfurled as Vlad's - this novel is not just about him, it's a faithful, largely historical dramatization of a period in political history, an illustration of life in 1400's Romania, of those nearest and dearest to Dracula. At it's heart it is not just a story, but a raw, emotional storytelling; woven from factual threads into a complex and fascinating expanse of possibilities.

From the outset, it's hard not to like Vlad. Starting with his life as a teen hostage in the hands of his fathers enemies - Turks ruled by Sultan Murad Han, we are introduced quite early to the intelligence, passion and heart of Vlad's character, as well as to the rivalry that will last as long as he lives with the Sultan's son, Mehmet Celebi. Sound crazy? Well, what the novel first and foremost does is place the man in his historical and cultural context. When he is no more than a name in a history book, imbued with exaggerated fabrications about his deeds (and lore unjustly associated with a character created some 250 years later), it is easy to forget he was also just a man. One raised by his father's enemy, taught against his will to torture and maim, while his family was viciously destroyed by those same enemies and traitors. It is easy to forget that he believed in a Christian God and in the times he lived, the greatest thing a Christan could do was declare crusade and wage holy war. Does that justify his actions? Not at all. Does it complicate his condemnation? Hell yes.

Absolutely, completely, utterly impossible to put down, you'll be awake at 3am and willing your eyes to just hold on to the end of the next (five) chapters. It's dark, graphic, uncompromising; awe-inspiring, sympathy-evoking, completely engrossing. It turned my stomach on occasion, it broke my heart on others, and I declare shamelessly that the ending is perfection. It's the ultimate juxtaposition of artistic licence and otherwise-faithful historical recounting. Vlad's is a undefined story embellished with myth and altered for fireside tellings over the years - if you're going to faithfully tell his story now it would almost be an injustice NOT to add a personal touch; a nod to his ongoing legend - a view to view his story anew. If there's a better touch out there than that of the masterful Mr. Humphreys', to coin a classic, I'll eat my hat.

The ONLY downside to this novel (and again, I hesitate to include this because I'd hate to think I deterred anyone from reading it), is the sudden skipping of weeks, months or even years from one chapter to the next. Of course, this is wholly necessary in a novel covering the stories, histories and politics of several people, their nations and their enemies, so it's not a mark against the novel in any way. It's skillfully done - it's adds a quality of human memory to the telling, fragmented though vivid; and after all, this is a collection of memories, painful, memoiric recollections, recounted by those who knew Dracula best. The only reason I feel it is a downside is because 430 pages wasn't enough for me - I could have read another 400 quite happily if only filled with the mundanity of those quieter years - a tribute to the ability of the author.

An enthralling, disturbing, thought-provoking and wholly satisfying read.

Rating: 5/5