This book was an eye-opener for me, being new to the legend of Dracula and having little knowledge about its historical roots. The novel is set between the 15th century Balkans and the Ottoman empire, with its seemingly unstoppable march northwards into new territories. Hanging over the book is the threat of the sack of Constantinople, from many different points of view. The sultan Murad II is tormented by his failure to achieve the jewel in the Ottoman crown, tormented by the possibility of gaining access to the famous Greek scrolls contained within Constantinople’s library. His son and heir Mehmet too is tantalised by his dream of victory, a victory to prove he is worthy to rule, and is better than his father. On the other side of an uncomfortable diplomatic arrangement, Dracul of Wallachia is concerned for the Greeks, whom he devotedly supports despite pressure from the Roman Catholic church to prioritise compliance with their own doctrines.
This is not only a good story, but a very thought-provoking novel, artfully structured. Lucille Turner spins a compelling tale pivoting on the myth of the vampyr, or strigoi, a being who ‘can admit neither of confession, nor of prayer, nor of sacrament, since all three of these are an abomination to his kind’. As the story progresses we see both Dracul and his son Vlad Dracula fighting against the fear of the strigoi, with Vlad clearly battling some kind of affliction manifesting itself in sleep-walking and seizures, and the father encouraging him to read the holy books to help him through. At first we assume that Dracul is attempting to quash ‘the Devil’s trance’. As we get deeper into the novel, and Vlad becomes stronger, we begin to wonder if a different lesson was at hand, a lesson which can only be completed with possession of the scrolls of Constantinople.
Behind the house of Dracul is the myth of Zalmoxis, a deity who possesses the nature of a wolf, having hunted and caught the sacred creature to gain its powers. The wolf’s nature is both empowering and a curse; and so is the affliction which Vlad Dracula suffers from: his story is a parallel to the devil-like Zalmoxis, and it is his actions and the actions of those enthralled by his unusual charm which will determine the course of history. ‘Once a man is wolf, he is hungry forever.’
This novel will draw you into a world of intrigue, and a story operating on many levels. The reader is given a view of the Ottoman world through the eyes of the sultan’s third wife, concerned only for her young son’s safety in the dangerous yet beautiful environs of the palace. The reader also sees the far bigger picture, courtesy of the soothsayer Athazaz. You’ll find yourself musing on seemingly insignificant individuals and their fates, and also on vast subjects such as whether differing religions can work together for a shared enlightenment, and on the role played by Dracula in shaping the world in the 15th century and the centuries to come.
Dracula may be a figure often consigned to horror stories and melodrama; here by contrast, he is enigmatic and masterful, an historical figure effortlessly characterised by Turner even as she cloaks him in mystery.
The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer will be published by Hengist Press on 19 November. If, like me, you are inspired by the novel and want to find out more about the folklore and ideas behind it, the author has some interesting blog posts here.