I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
Vampire lore states that these creatures can mesmerize their victims, leaving them powerless to resist the lure of their captor: well, like a vampire, this book managed to mesmerize me from start to finish, making it almost impossible for me to put it down – I lost count of the number of times I told myself “just one more chapter, then I’ll stop”, only to keep reading on…
The vampire myth is one of my favorite themes in horror, so once I learned that A Dowry of Blood focused on a retelling of the story of Dracula and his brides it was a given that I would read it, but what I found was a very unexpected tale told in an equally unexpected narrative style, which added to my enjoyment of the book. The narrator is Constanta, one of the famous vampire’s brides as she relates her story in an impassioned letter to her sire who, as we learn from the very first sentence in the book, she killed in an act that she describes as possessing “its own sort of inevitability”.
Constanta’s first encounter with the creature who will change her existence happens outside a Romanian village devastated by a brutal attack: she lies dying on the ground, images of her family’s massacre mixing with the awareness of her imminent demise, when this fascinating stranger makes her an offer that seems like salvation but which will lead her on a very unpredictable path. Her beginnings as the vampire’s bride flow in a mix of fascination and discovery that appear all the more extraordinary given Constanta’s origin as a poor peasant girl, but as time elapses it becomes increasingly clear that her husband/master’s outer veneer of charm hides a volatile, domineering disposition that becomes even more marked when their “family” comes to include the presence of Magdalena, a beautiful Spanish heiress, and later on of young Alexi, a penniless Russian actor.
More than being another story about vampires, A Dowry of Blood represents the deconstruction of their myth as it shows the other side of the coin represented by the fascinating lure of an immortal predator: here Dracula (even though his name is never actually mentioned) comes across as an abusive despot, a creature of fickle disposition, easily angered and possessed of a mean streak. At first Constanta accepts it all as part and parcel of her new life, never having had the opportunity for a comparison – either in her previous life or in her new, immortal one – and living as she does in almost total isolation with her sire. Things however change when Magdalena joins their “family”: the transition from jealousy to attraction to complicity allows Constanta to put her existence into perspective and to observe their lord’s treatment of his brides from an equidistant position, therefore bringing to light his manipulative and control-oriented tactics. The situation worsens when starving actor Alexi is brought into their midsts, his lust for life and human companionship undiminished by the changes in his body: the younger man’s desire to keep a foot in both worlds – the living and the undead – takes the vampire lord’s stranglehold on his “family” to new heights, ultimately laying the foundations for his (untimely?) end.
Even though I’m usually not very comfortable with allegories, I can view this novel as one about toxic relationships – and who better than a blood-sucking vampire to epitomize the draining of agency, self-worth and freedom caused by an abusive spouse? Constanta is the classic example of the naive woman who finds herself married to a control freak who does everything in his power to establish his authority on her, either cutting off any chance of outside contact, or constantly belittling her, or both, in what she labels as “the cycle of brutality and tenderness” than informs their relationship. She is only an extension of himself, something he created for his own ends, not for her benefit:
[…] I don’t think you ever truly saw me as a whole woman. I was always a student. A project. An accessory in the legal and decorative sense.
In the end, the mistake of the vampire lord comes from the choice to increase his entourage, because instead of adding more “accessories” to his dominion he unwittingly lays the basis for a found family: the strength of the bonds that unite Constanta, Magdalena and Alexi is what ultimately allows them to see their sire for what he truly is, and to find the courage to sever the ties linking them to him and to regain their freedom. What finally struck me, once I finished the book, was the realization that in never using her husband’s name in the story (only hinting at his true identity in an oblique reference to the “troublesome Harkers”) Constanta took back the agency she was robbed of for so many centuries: in denying him his identity, his name, she exacted the perfect kind of vengeance against the constant theft of power and self-determination he visited on his brides.
I described A Dowry of Blood as a mesmerizing book, and the greatest part of such effect comes from the narrative style and the almost lyrical prose that took hold of my imagination and created a rich, three-dimensional picture of these characters and their surroundings: there is a gothic flavor to this story that nevertheless does not lapse into purple prose, blending the quaint and the modern into a seamless whole. If, like it seems, this is only the first volume in a saga, I more than look forward to what the author has in store for us in the next books…