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Despite the fact that I obviously love vampire books (you’d have to be pretty stupid to attempt to write a trilogy in a genre you disliked!) until this week, it’s actually been ages since I’d read one. Partly, this was because all the work I’d been doing on my own vampire novels had left me fairly sated, partly because it’s so hard not to compare similar books to mine. In that situation, I don’t know which is worse – the bad ones that make me mentally scream “why is this piece of rubbish selling so much better than Oxford Blood?” or the ones that make me think “I wish I had written this.”  With a really very finite amount of time to read in between my day job, writing, and attempting to maintain a social life, I’ve been trying to make an effort to make my reading time count and make sure I experience as wide a range of genres and styles as possible. Finally, the sad truth is that there are an awful lot of awful vampire books (I claimed you have to love a genre to write it – I strongly suspect that in the wake of twilight, far too many people jumped on the vampire bandwagon, with little interest in or knowledge of what had gone before). Awful in the sense of being badly written, awful in the sense of far too similar to lots of other novels and awful in the sense that although supposedly a vampire book, you could replace the characters with attractive, slightly mysterious humans and the plot would barely change (as Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight fanfiction with humans, demonstrated so neatly).

Anyway, I finally read a new (to me) vampire novel – Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman. I only cracked because a friend had leant it to me, and looking nervously at the trashy eighties horror cover, it took me ages to get around to reading it. I’m so glad I did. It’s one of the best books, vampire or otherwise, I’ve read in a long time. After failing to give a single book five stars last year (apart from one re-read) my first read of 2013 is straight into the rarefied world of a perfect score.

I wrote a post a few months ago about how relatively few vampire fans have actually read Dracula, and how it was actually a genuinely good book rather than just an outdated, cliche-ridden founder of a genre. ( Have You Ever Actually Read Dracula?) Well all I can say is that Kim Newman is clearly fully in agreement with me. Unusually for a piece of entertainment riffing off Dracula, it takes its inspiration from the original book rather than later films or a vague idea of the story. All the obscure characters than cinema tends to ignore such as Dr Seward and Lord Godalming are present and correct. If you have read it, you’ll really appreciate the way this book continues the story of all the characters, large and small, keeping their personality intact, but also, in some cases, putting a different spin on it, eg. implying that Lucy was giving herself to Dracula willingly, and that Van Helsing’s attempts to give her blood transfusions, rather than Dracula’s ministrations, was what killed her (due to a lack of understanding about blood types).

The plot is quite straightforward. Dracula survived the events of the eponymous novel, married Queen Victoria and is now ruling Britain. As a result, people know about the existence of vampires and it’s becoming increasingly common and fashionable to become one. The basic premise is therefore broadly similar to the Parasol Protectorate, another book I really enjoyed, but I feel that this book took the concept and ran with it much better.

The first good point about the book is that it’s simply a damn good read. There are some interesting characters and it’s a real page turner.

Secondly, I found it really quite well written, with some fantastic turns of phrase. I’m quite puzzled by a few reviews that claim this isn’t the case – it’s one of the most technically adept paranormal novels I’ve ever read.

Thirdly, the author is clearly passionate about Victorian history and literature, and about vampire novels and films, and has very obviously done his research. It’s not just Dracula –  there are characters from a whole host of other old vampire novels, such as Carmilla, Varney the Vampire and the imaginatively titled The Vampyre. I haven’t read, all of those, but from his fabulous treatment of the Dracula cast, I imagine they’re pretty cleverly represented. In particular, the title character from The Vampyre, Lord Ruthven, is the Prime Minister in AD, and so awesome that I’m now desperate to read the original.

Beyond vampires, pretty much every character, from the stars to the cameos, is either a historical or literary figure, from Sherlock Holmes to Bram Stoker’s wife (the author being in jail for writing a seditious novel against the Prince Consort!), Oscar Wilde to Dr Jekyll. It was great fun spotting the references I knew, although even as a history graduate and huge vampire fan, lots of them went over my head, leading to a bit of fun on Wikipedia.

Finally, there were lots of little historical jokes (eg. some people were more concerned about Dracula being Catholic than being a vampire when judging his suitability for the throne) which were both amusing and cleverly done.

There’s a murder mystery, lots of political intrigue and a bit of romance, all of which are handled well.

To get the full benefit from this book, it’s probably useful to have read Dracula and ideally to have at least some familiarity with the Victorian period and/or Victorian literature and/or other famous vampire books and vampire mythology. Nonetheless, I’d recommend this book to anyone who’s looking for a fun but absorbing read. I rarely give five star reviews, but this has shot up into my list of favourites.

I’m now going straight onto the sequel, the Bloody Red Baron, set in World War One with Dracula leading the German air-force.

In another blog post, I commented on how important I think it is for writers to read, to maximise both inspiration and enthusiasm. (Writers: Don’t Forget to Read and Write) Reading this has rekindled my love of vampire novels, and I suspect can only help encourage me to finish the Cavaliers Book Three. With this in mind, on Monday I’m writing a post detailing just what it is I enjoy about vampire novels and whilst their a worthwhile genre, not just pure trash. Check that out, and in the meantime, I really can’t recommend Anno Dracula enough. Pop over to Amazon and get yourself a copy – http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B005G4GJJQ

(Oh and whilst you’re there, if you haven’t already, get yourself a free Kindle copy of Oxford Blood before the promotion ends tonight –  http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B009SQ1LPK  – both are also available at Amazon.com)

NOTE: I obviously don’t own the rights to the Anno Dracula cover pictured at the top of this post. As I’m only using it as part of my attempts to sing the book’s praises, I hope the the authors, publishers and lawyers don’t mind too much!