This is a historical fiction novel about Vlad Dracula, the real figure that inspired Bram Stoker when he wrote Dracula. Of course, I use the term "inspire" loosely here, since the only thing Stoker really used was the East European setting and the name Dracula, otherwise completely ignoring the history behind the man, which would have made a rather horrific story on its own.
The novel begins five years after Dracula's death, as three people are gathered up by troops. As they discover shortly after, they have been collected at the ruler of Wallachia's behest to get the true story on Dracula, his actions, accomplishments and failures. The idea is that redeeming his name could possibly be the inspiration for another crusade, and a cardinal from Rome has come to hear this last confession about Vlad, Vovoide of Wallachia, from the three that knew him best: his best friend and comrade, Ion; Ilona, his mistress; and his confessor. Though the story is narrated by these three people, the reader gets the narrative in the traditional form, and can guess who certain information came from. For the most part, the reader isn't told the internal motivations for Vlad's actions unless he shared them with one of the three people mentioned, leaving the reader to make their own judgements. Within the context of the story, it is not hard to understand why Vlad did the things he did, even if it is hard to understand how he could do them and still live with himself.
The confessions introduce a teenage Vlad who has been a hostage in Turkey for the past five years. He receives the privileges and education of a noblemen at this court but never forgets his status as a political hostage, meant to ensure his father's compliance. The politics of 15th century East Europe are perilous and complicated, with the small kingdom of Wallachia facing threats from all sides, including Christian and Muslim threats. Early on, young Vlad already sees that one of the main problems is that the Christians states are too busy fighting amongst themselves for scraps to come together and provide a formidable defense and challenge to the Turks (in fact, Constantinople falls to the Ottomans in the time span of this novel, thus ending the final part of the original Roman Empire). Wallachia's leader has to pay tribute to the Sultan, keep rebellious and traitorous lords under control, and maintain functioning relations with places such as Hungary. When Vlad's father, Dracul, displeases the Sultan, Dracula is sent to the Turkish prison where he learns all about torture and witnesses his first impalement while his younger brother becomes the play thing of the heir to the throne.
Once Dracula returns to Wallachia to claim his throne, he faces threats from his boyars, or lords, and quickly finds the nobles of his land turning against him, used to the previous lawlessness and lack of rule. After a long struggle, Vlad becomes undisputed claimant of the throne, and it is during this time that Vlad gains the nickname and reputation that will follow him as the Impaler. As harsh as his punishments and actions are, his actions are understandable even if I wouldn't condone them. In order to show rough men that he meant business, he himself had to be harsh and drastic. Under his rule, people did not worry about crime because his punishment was swift and merciless.
I enjoyed the first part of this novel more than the second half, which dealt more with Vlad's youth and his development. Humphrey chose not to judge Vlad, letting the reader make their own judgements, but this also means that there is a distance between Vlad and the reader, especially as he gets older, since Humphrey doesn't let us into his mind. I think it was a good decision given the subject matter, but it meant that after a while certain scenes felt repetitive. Part of this was of course Vlad's life, which saw many highs and lows with lots of backstabbing from fellow royals and his followers. In current day Romania, Vlad is remembered more for the good he accomplished, including the decrease in crime, and the attempts to liberate Romania from foreign powers. It is unfortunate that this historical figure has been lost behind the vampire legend because it is an intriguing story that provides enough brutality to satisfy even horror fans. It was a good piece of historical fiction but I haven't read any other historical fiction on this subject to compare it to, and as I said I didn't love the novel. It felt a bit long by the end so while I wouldn't rush to get this novel into anyone else's hands, it would definitely appeal to anyone that likes medieval historical fiction, needs something to do once Game of Thrones is done for the season, or would like to see the reality behind the myth.