I discovered C.C Humphreys in July when I read Plague, a novel about, unsurprisingly, the plague. Looking at the other books he had written, I came across one called Vlad: The Last Confession and thought it might be a good choice for this year’s R.I.P. challenge. Despite my best intentions I didn’t manage to start it in time for R.I.P. but decided to read it anyway.
Vlad, of course, is Vlad Dracula (also known as Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler due to the particularly brutal method of punishment he used to torture his victims) but apart from the name, there are very few similarities with Bram Stoker’s famous vampire. I think it’s important to know, before you decide whether to read Vlad: The Last Confession, that this is not a vampire novel and not a retelling of Dracula. It’s a fascinating and thoroughly researched novel about a fifteenth century Prince of Wallachia (a region of Romania) who devoted most of his life to trying to secure his throne against rival claimants and fighting off the threat of the Ottoman Empire.
Born in 1431 in Transylvania, Vlad is the son of Vlad II, voivode of Wallachia and a member of the Order of the Dragon, hence the name Dracula (son of Dracul, the dragon). Vlad’s hatred of the Ottoman Turks begins at an early age when he and his younger brother, Radu, are held hostage in Edirne for several years. During their time in captivity they are educated in the Turkish language, religion and culture, but while Radu eventually converts to Islam and joins the household of the Sultan Mehmet II, Vlad remains resentful and defiant. Following the murder of his father, he returns to Wallachia to reclaim the throne.
Vlad’s story is told through the recollections of the three people who knew him best: his closest friend, his mistress and his confessor. These three are brought together after Vlad’s death and give evidence to help a jury – and the reader – to make up their minds about Vlad. So who was he, really? A brave leader who fought for what he believed in or a cruel, sadistic tyrant? I think the answer was probably both.
One of the things I liked about this novel was the fact that C.C. Humphreys’ depiction of Vlad is fair and unbiased; he doesn’t try to make excuses for his behaviour but at the same time he helps us to understand how and why Vlad came to commit some of the appalling acts he is known for. For example, during Vlad’s time as a Turkish hostage he is taken to a torture chamber and forced to learn some horrific medieval torture techniques. Although he resists at first, he soon adapts and tells himself that “we torture others so they cannot torture us”. While this certainly doesn’t justify any of his later actions, at least we can see some of the early experiences and influences that shaped the man he would become.
I’ve mentioned the torture scenes; I should warn you that there are also a lot of impaling scenes (and they are described in graphic detail) but I think this was necessary to illustrate the darker side of Vlad’s character in a way that makes a real impact. There are a lot of battle scenes too – and fights, jousts and descriptions of falconry. This is quite an action-packed novel, but Humphreys also explores Vlad’s relationships with his childhood friend, Ion Tremblac and his lover, Ilona Ferenc, as well as with enemies such as Mehmet. I have to admit, I would much rather have had more time spent on the personal storylines and less on the fighting and brutality, which I thought started to become very repetitive.
I found some of the history difficult to follow because of my complete lack of knowledge of what was happening in Eastern Europe during this period, but by the time I finished the book I felt I’d learned a lot. And even though my interest started to wane towards the end, I was glad I’d persevered. Vlad III is apparently considered to be a national hero in Romania and although a lot of the shocking things described in Humphreys’ novel are based on fact – he lists them in his author’s note at the end – I was left wondering whether Vlad may in some ways have been unfairly treated by history. As one of the characters in the novel remarks, “What the world knows is the story his conquerors told. And since they controlled so many printing presses, it was their stories that were widely spread”.