Book Review: Vlad Dracula: The Dragon Prince
The Wargamer's Lloyd Sabin takes a look at this work of historical fiction.
Author: Michael Augustyn
Reviewing Author: Lloyd Sabin
Fifteenth century Eastern Europe was a scary place. The roads were ruled by thieves, the cities were teeming and regularly engulfed by disease, and war broke out frequently, sometimes in the dying form of the Crusade. By the middle of the century the chaos of the age manifested itself most recognizably in the conflict between the rising Ottoman Empire and the two most powerful Catholic states in the region, the Kingdoms of Hungary and Poland. Whole cities were razed as the battles between these powers grew more violent: Varna, Constantinople, Belgrade and Buda would all be sucked into the maelstrom of religious war. Caught in the middle was tiny Wallachia, clinging to life in the Carpathian Mountains, struggling not to be dominated by either side.
In this historical novel Vlad Dracula: The Dragon Prince, Michael Augustyn creates a desperate landscape that the people of Wallachia must face. Enduring raids and facing imminent invasion at their borders for years at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, the reader pities the Wallachians as they struggle to unite and keep their own kingdom safe while also remaining independent of the other regional powers. It is clear from Augustynís story that the ďenemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.Ē
The protagonist is introduced in the form of a very sympathetic Vlad Dracul. The reader gets the impression that he and his closest allies and advisers, including Wilk, his Polish chief of staff, Prasha, his moody wife, and his hand-picked lords are all fighting an unwinnable struggle. Whether against home-grown criminals, the useless and sometimes hostile boyar class, Polish and Hungarian ďalliesĒ or the Turks themselves, the reader gets a distinct impression that it may not all work out in the end after all. Itís this feeling of impending danger that makes the book a page-turner for the most part.
For readers who know a bit about Fifteenth Century Europe from reading or study elsewhere, some key incidents and interesting item descriptions are included in the narrative. These include some vivid tales of the gigantic Ottoman siege guns, descriptions of the militaries on all sides of the conflict, the fall of Constantinople, the siege of Belgrade, and Vlad Draculís liquidation of the old-line Wallachian boyars as well as his teaching some Ottoman diplomats a lesson in manners. All of these descriptive scenes are done well, even if they are a little predictable for those who have read the story somewhere else.
Augustyn is also unabashedly pro-Vlad, and after a few hundred pages this can wear thin. Dracula, the historical figure, was known to be close to insane, a medieval psychopath who had no problem killing thousands of his own citizens as well as tens of thousands of Turks. He also had a taste for exotic tortures, the most famous of which is described in some graphic detail more than once.
From Augustynís portrayal of events, though, the reader gets the idea that Vlad was just doing what was necessary in the name of peace and justice. There is no real exploration of his dark side, and that is a missed opportunity in a book like this. The historical Dracula is even portrayed as a doting father and caring husbandÖwhich he may have been, but the sugar-coating gets to be a little too saccharine. I wanted more scenes of Vlad Dracul fighting the good fight in the name of Wallachia, instead of one more scene of Vlad the Dad looking longingly at his lovely Prasha and chasing his young son down the dark hallways of Castle Dracula. I wanted an inside track on his gothic insanity. Readers donít really ever get that though. They do get unexpected sweetness, and that does take away a bit from the otherwise well written battle scenes, which is why most readers will be reading The Dragon Prince in the first place.
Thatís not to say the book is poorly written. The writing itself can be a little broken and strangely paced, but most of the passages on combat and the locales are well done. In the end itís this subject matter that will keep readers coming back. How many books can readers find that even approach the history of Wallachia at all, never mind focus on it? Not many. A little less fabricated sweetness and a little more grit, goth and history would have made Vlad Dracula: The Dragon Prince, a classic, unique title. As it stands it is still a good book, worth the effort for the historically minded as well as readers with a darker side. It just might not be dark enough for everyone since we donít get to see much of the dark side which inspired so many Draculas. It wasnít for me.