Matthew Kresal returns to an alternate history...
Imagine that sometime in the 1880s Dracula came to Britain and defeated the forces of Van Helsing. With that effort behind him, he marries Queen Victoria, becomes Prince Consort and introduces vampires into the world at large. That was the premise for Anno Dracula, Kim Newman's stunning alternate history novel that combined fact and fiction so brilliantly. Moving forward thirty years in time to the First World War, The Bloody Red Baron certainly looks promising. But is it really?
The answer is yes and no. Like the original novel, Newman creates a fascinating world built around that original central concept and explores what the Western Front of the Great War would have been like in that world. Filling in some of the gaps of the three decades between the two novels, we learn of how the Europe of this history came to be fractured, and how not only humans but vampires are fighting it out in the trenches and skies. Newman fills the novel with a extraordinary amount of detail from our history, such as the titular Red Baron and an unexpected vampire from America, as well as combining it with elements from across a number of fictional works including the Biggles novels, a supporting character from Doctor Who and even cameos from one of the most famous literary characters of all time and one of the most famous screen vampires of them all. It's a expansive, inclusive work and is even impressive at times.
Only at times though. My only real complaint about Anno Dracula was that there were a few times when Newman dwelt on the details of the world it was set in at the expense of the plot in places. That is a problem that plagues The Bloody Red Baron throughout as Newman seems more interested in the aesthetics of the novel rather than its actual plot. While it's great to have all those aforementioned elements here, there isn't much of a plot that puts them to use, which leaves one with the literary equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster: loud, brash and exciting but otherwise quite hollow. Perhaps that's because the setting doesn't quite allow for the same narrative drive as Newman introduces too many characters and too many plot lines to give the novel the same kind of focus as the first book. It's a flaw and a fairly fatal one that often reduces exciting ideas into excruciatingly lengthy prose.
Fairing better is the shorter novella Vampire Romance that is included in the Titan edition of the novel. Set in 1923, the novella centers on a character absent from The Bloody Red Baron in the form of the vampire Genevieve Dieudonne, who is sent by the Diogenes Club to infiltrate a meeting of vampires at an estate in the English countryside. Only running maybe 150 pages or so, Newman creates an interesting little thriller with some intriguing links to the larger Anno Dracula saga and England's past history. The novella has a good pace and never gets caught up in the details like Bloody Red Baron does though it doesn't exactly give its lead character much to do within its actual plot. Despite that, it never outstays its welcome and makes (along with the annotations to the novel itself) a wonderful addition to the Anno Dracula universe.
On the whole though, it's hard not to find this volume a tad disappointing. Despite some great ideas, Newman gets far too caught up in the aesthetics at the expense of both the plot and the characters. Despite that, the ideas shine brightly and the novel does have its moments which make a good sequel to Anno Dracula, even if it is inferior by and large.
Anno Dracula Review
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.