This is a simple story about one girl’s strife to cope with her primal instincts. A familiar theme, but really effective.
The beginning even if only briefly, touches on the harrowing cruelty carried out by The Roman Catholic Church at the time and which reputedly continued for centuries. The story begins with Ruxandra, the daughter of Vlad Dracula, in her room at the convent, a day before her father comes to fetch her and her eighteenth birthday. Her two friends Adele and Valencia sneak into her room. The three girls are caught in a lesbian sex act and punished by Sister Sophia. They are flogged with leather straps, naked outside in the winter cold night. This punishment came across as torture to me; the Sister seemed to derive great pleasure in humiliating the girls. Isn’t every Christian taught that the convent or the church is a place of tolerance and compassion? How can religious people teach the love of God and mistreat the ones in their care? Whether what they were doing is wrong or not, our responsibility or privilege as Christians is never to hate but to love, and God is the only one who can judge us because He alone is pure.
The story does not delve deeper into Vlad’s Dracula’s character; Most of what we know about him is what Ruxandra recounts. He is a true nationalist and is known for his breathtaking courage and cruelty: He does not have any redeeming qualities because he comes to collect Ruxandra, after ten years in the convent on her eighteenth birthday and barely says anything to her. When Mother Superior tries to tell him of Ruxandra’s accomplishments, which were basically an example of limits that were expected and encouraged of women, he doesn’t seem interested at all. And we find out why. He is a man who has no compunction about doing what he thinks needs to be done to save the Turks. Including sacrificing his daughter. For Power. Whether he desired power out of need or want, it breaks all moral dimensions of parenthood.
It resonated with me that the fallen angel Vlad summoned says to him. “You believe that betraying your own flesh will give you power?” It is a powerful statement in its utterance. However positive, in a succeeding flow of dialogue, Ruxandra unknowingly sells her soul to this deceiver. “…Do you want to die?” Ruxandra hesitates to answer because of everything she has been taught about fallen angels in the Convent. In a haze of glamor, she gives an affirmative answer, and the fallen angel feeds her her blood. Her life changes forever and now she has this uncontrollable hunger. For blood.
Confused and horrified, after killing her father and some of his men, Ruxandra makes her way to the first village she finds. News of her father’s death and her disappearance has already spread. Amid all this, Lady Demetra offers her sanctuary. Still trying to reconcile with her metamorphosis, against her will, she drinks the blood of and kills Lusa who is supposedly a maid in Lady Demetra’s household.
Branded a demon, Ruxandra flees and spends the next few months in the forest, learning to use her cursed power, avoiding humans and killing animals instead, to curb her hunger, in the process identifying her limitations as a vampire until she stumbles across Neculai Lupei. He is woodcutter with a cabin in the woods not far from his village. She is automatically drawn to him. She knows nothing about sex with ‘men,’ but he stirs more than her bloodlust.
Between him offering her his cloak, giving her his dead sister’s dress, towel and lilac-scented soap to starting to fantasize about him and their late night conversations, trying not to sink her fangs into his neck is a struggle. Eventually, she loses her virginity to him. In the throes of passion, she bites him. Neculai turns into a rogue vampire. Ruxandra has fallen in love with Neculai in an understated way, and she has to wrestle with the necessity to kill him when she realizes he is a perverse version of what she has become. I found myself expecting Ruxandra to ultimately help him and for them to live happily ever after but we are presented with his tragic execution. Tut-Tut!
I just got goosebumps when she revealed her name to the villagers after killing Neculai. And when one of the males circled around and ready to kill her, declares she is not who she says she is because she is dead. Ruxandra does not dispel this rumor. “…I am dead, and I am still her.”. We get a glimpse of her power. I could picture it in my mind: the fear gripping the villagers and their mouths agape at her declaration. And in the same scene, I got the impression, some of the villagers or at least one would have given her a chance. One of the men dares to, though fearful, stand with her after he and countless others witnessed Ruxandra mutilating Neculai. That in itself suggested to me that even if he sees her as some kind of monster, she is on their side. I just wanted the author to do more with it, just a little.
By a knife assault, she discovers a weapon that can end her existence. Ruxandra delivers the weapon to Mother Superior at the Convent and tells her to keep it in case she needed to be stopped. She lives her coming years as a recluse until Countess Elizabeth Bathory captures her, holds her prisoner and feeds her human blood: unleashing the beast that she has tried so hard to suppress.
I am leery of most vampire anything whether be it a book or movie. We all know about vampire myths because so many stories have been retold so many times in so many different ways. And that could be boring. But I forgot I was reading fiction and got so emotionally invested in what Ruxandra was going through and felt bad for her. Patrick did a great job to make us visualize the impalpable; he gives us an insight into her thoughts and feelings as she undertakes her transformation, the intensity of her struggle to hang on to her humanity took me places I have been before. Nearly three-quarters of the book is about her mental process and physical discovery about what the change signifies. What does the Bible say “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” Her flesh shouted loudly when it wanted to feed, and the ruckus it made easily drowned out the desires of her spirit. Ruxandra didn’t want to be this monster. I really dig it.
The final scene is serialized, it’s a set up for a sequel (which there is by the way and I will put it on my reading list), but if there had never been one, I don’t think I would have been disappointed. It can be read as a stand-alone.