Monday, October 18, 2004

Ex Libris: Kim Newman's "Anno Dracula"

Everything, plus the kitchen sink.

That's how I think of Kim Newman's Anno Dracula: a fascinating romp and worthy addition to the literature of the vampire.

I first heard mention of Newman here and there on the internet together in the same breath as Tim Powers and James Blaylock, underrated SFF writers who are taking speculative fiction in weird and wonderful directions.

Later on, one of my favorite critics, Canadian author/editor Claude Lalumière, recommended Newman in a review-essay, "A Vampire Hater's Concise Guide to Vampire Fiction," for those who were getting tired of Anne Rice's effeminate black-wearing bloodsuckers. And by chance, I was lucky enough to pick up Newman's first book in the series of a world where Dracula was "...triumphant and went on to become consort to Queen Victoria."

In Anno Dracula, Newman throws in a whole slew of literary and historical characters into the pot as a secret government agent and a female vampire join forces to investigate the Jack the Ripper murders of several vampire prostitutes. In the course of the events, the reader will feel like he or she is in a raft up a white-water river as Newman mixes 'pulpy violence, wry wit, politically engaged historical reconstructions, and playful appropriations of characters from all walks of fiction' (to quote Lalumière).

Where else can you get a story that mentions Sherlock Holmes and Bram Stoker being thrown in a prisoner camp for political crimes? Or Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Moreau rubbing shoulders in some dingy mad-scientist laboratory? Or Professor Moriarty heading the worst of the worst criminals in Victorian literature? Or even Oscar Wilde on Dracula's dreaded watchlist due to his penchant for favoring boys?

If you're thinking that this is almost like "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen"-- the comic book, not the lousy movie, mind-- then yes, you're correct. And like Alan Moore, Newman keeps throwing stuff at the reader so fast, one better not blink. I, for one, missed or forgotten the references to the Lone Ranger, the Elephant Man, Alan Quatermain, and Lewis Carroll.

However, one need not to be well-read in order to enjoy this book as Newman combines action, mystery, and suspense to create a well-written tale peopled with very interesting and 3-dimensional people.

The only flaw to my enjoyment of this book was that everything went by so fast that I wasn't able to really savor the flavour of Newman's alternative Victorian history. Thus, I felt I wasn't able to totally sympathize with the characters: I'm sure this wasn't the author's fault but my own. One drawback of trying to consume a meal too fast too much, I guess.

It actually reminded me of Tim Power's The Anubis Gates, a historical time-travel novel with the same pulpish sensibilities as Newman. Like Newman's book, I felt that despite all the excitement going on in Power's novel, I really couldn't sympathize with the characters.

Which makes wonder: is there a pattern there? Do stories with these pulpish qualities all have this inherent weakness?


(One way to find out: read the succeeding books in the series, starting with The Bloody Red Baron and then Judgement of Tears. What's nice about this series though is that they're all somewhat stand-alone so it's pretty easy to jump in anywhere.)

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