‘Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron’ Book Review
Publisher: Titan Books
Plot: In an alternate history of Earth vampires are a well spread phenomenon many world political and cultural leaders having been turned. With the shape of the world changed the events surrounding the World War have also changed. Dracula and the Kaiser seek to make Germany a pure vampire nation and is storming across the skies of France. Told from multiple perspectives the book focuses on a secret weapon being developed involving the Red Baron and his squadron of fighter pilots.
Review: Two things struck me when this book arrived in the post…the first being that it has totally sweet cover art. Evocative of the style of the time and with a stark red and black colour scheme there’s little chance that this could be passed over in a book shop with a lingering stare. Next I noticed the name of the author. Kim Newman was best known to me for his work as a reviewer and his ‘Video Dungeon’ feature in Empire magazine. I’d never read any of his prose, but this was enough to sell me on the book.
The first hundred pages were dry to say the very least. The number of characters rivals the works of George R.R. Martin and they include real life historical figures and fictional characters existing alongside each other. They range from the exceedingly well known, such as Dracula and Winston Churchill, to more obscure passing references. In one instance a Dr. Langstrom from Gotham University is fleetingly mentioned in relation to manipulating shape-shifters – a reference that tickles a Batman fanatic such as I. It’s during these first 100 pages these characters are introduced as well as the multiple major locations, with particular attention paid to the political situation and histories of the major players. What makes these early chapters something of a slog is that is feels like each chapter is introducing a new, large group of characters, the importance of whom is difficult to gauge.
Once established we settle into the pattern of the main characters from whose perspectives we see the war. Beauregard is a member of the Diogenes Club in London and keeper of many secrets, a vampire journalist names Kate Reed, brash young pilot Winthrop and the vampiric Edgar Allen Poe who has been commissioned to ghost the biography of the Red Baron. We follow each of their journeys as they learn the secrets being hidden beneath the war and seek to settle their own personal vendettas. Over time it is revealed that German scientists including Mabuse and Rotwang have altered the German fliers to turn them into giant bat-like creatures who easily carve through the Allie’s forces.
As with many vampire stories this is an immensely bloody affair but Newman has played his cards well. Vampires getting their fangs into each other has enough gore, but the real stomach churning moments come about on the battle field when extremes that the Great War drove people a brought to vivid life. When the action ramps up it does so with great relish, dogfights and ground skirmishes are richly detailed and will have many a reader biting their nails and flipping the pages. The finale in which Dracula flies his massive zeppelin into the battle is pure epic, in desperate need of a blockbuster movie treatment.
While the action delivers in spades, and fans of vampire horror will have something to lap up, the real selling point is the alternative history. Newman has done his homework and then asked for an extra credit assignment. The layers and details create a world that is at once convincing and fantastical. Anyone interested in alternative history fictions will find plenty to love here and the new edition annotations do help with identifying the more obscure characters and references. If you want a more serious take on the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen concept you’ve had your wish granted. Not that history buffs are the only ones being catered for – a chapter depicting Beauregard paying a visit to Dr. Moreau and Herbert West as they experiment on the living dead with be enough to please any geek.
For those not feeling the WWI vibe, this is part of a series of novels and short stories that cover a hefty chunk of a hundred year period. On a personal level I’ll be seeking out the original Anno Dracula, set against the Jack the Ripper murders, and the short that takes place on the set of Francis Ford Coppola’s Count Dracula (taking the place of Apocalypse Now).