Either I am a monster or I am not. Which is it? Which are you?
A Historical Fiction novel by Rose Christo.The book follows two of history's most notorious psychopaths: Count Vlad III Dracula, the 15th century Christian zealot known best for impaling his Muslim enemies, and Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the 16th century Hungarian princess rumored to have bathed in the blood of six hundred girls.The book starts In Medias Res. A very young but very well educated Vlad and his two brothers have just been sold by their cowardly father, the Prince Regent of Wallachia, as war hostages to the Ottoman Empire. Vlad's older brother is killed from the get go while his younger brother is treated like a concubinus. Vlad himself is expected to become a Janissary, one of many Christian boys kidnapped by the Sultan to fight on the frontlines of war. Vlad, despondent, writes a suicide note in the dirt of the campsite.A century later, a young and lonely Elizabeth discovers the note written in her flower garden and writes back. A correspondence begins.A character study told in a series of letters, Count and Countess notably "grows up" with its characters. As Vlad and Elizabeth are both young and sheltered at the start of the story, their letters initially read as an innocent but eager friendship. As they become older and desensitized to the cruelty around them, their letters grow darker and more structured. The more they alienate themselves from the rest of the world, the more obsessed they become with one another. The result is a completely different pair of characters by the end of the story who don't even realize they've become the people they used to hate.Also arguably a deconstruction of the ever-popular vampire genre: Vlad and Elizabeth are the real-life figures who inspired the contemporary mythos.
Tropes included in Count and Countess are:
Aerith and Bob: Almost definitely unintentional, but when sharing pagetime with characters named Ferencz, Dorotta, Darvulia, Orsolya, Istvan, Bogdan, Mehmed, and Radu, names like Elizabeth, Frederick, and Christian can appear very jarring.
Adult Fear: When Elizabeth seizes up and causes her daughter's death
Alternate History: Most notably, the real-life Elizabeth Bathory never took the Kingdom of Hungary for her own, though she did pass many of the bills presented in the story.
Byzantium never became Constantinople, and thanks to Vlad, it never becomes Istanbul. (At least not during his or Elizabeth's time.)
Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Vlad is extremely nonchalant in writing to Elizabeth about just how often he's beaten while held captive by the Turks. This does a pretty decent job of showing that he's already in the middle of becoming desensitized to brutality. Elizabeth herself is later guilty of this and takes up the habit of murdering anyone who threatens her security as Princess Regnant, but describes the murders in the same way one would describe the weather.
Sometimes played for humor, especially when Vlad is a child.
Damn it all, but I will not fight for them! I will not fight in the name of their heathen God! And I will not wear that ridiculous pointed helmet because it looks positively absurd.
Asexuality: Implied with Vlad. When his adviser tries to hook him up with a wife, he retaliates by killing her, then putting her body on display in his welcoming chamber. His interest in Elizabeth never approaches sexual territory, in fact he states early on that he likes her so much because she's his intellectual equal.
Asshole Victim: Was anyone really all that upset when Elizabeth kills her rapist?
Aww, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Vlad insists there is no love lost between him and his brothers, but has a breakdown when he unexpectedly finds his little brother alive and well, then loses him again, this time for good. Every action he undertakes in the novel is either revenge for his brothers, or lonely desperation to be with the only friend he's ever had. He eventually accepts this, and begs Elizabeth's forgiveness.
Badass / Hidden Badass / Action Girl / Action Mom / Waif-Fu: Subverted. Elizabeth does kill a couple of people who have it coming, specifically her husband and her rapist, but she never actually fights anyone, preferring to get the drop on them with a hidden weapon, and the majority of who she kills are innocents.
Beauty Equals Goodness: So averted with Vlad, who is described as an adult as having golden hair, green eyes, bronze skin, and a downy beard. Elizabeth is a bit of a subversion; she is by far the more sympathetic of the two characters but her looks are actually described as quite plain, even ugly.
Becoming the Mask: As a young boy, Vlad very notably hates the Sultan because he tortures his captives with impalation and forces women and children to fight. Once Vlad returns to Wallachia and inherits an army of his own, he slowly starts implementing the exact same routines. His reasoning is different—e.g. he wants to scare the Turks with their own practices, he runs out of enlisted men to fight the war—but by the end of the novel, he has become so cruel and capricious that it doesn't really matter what his reason was.
Blood Bath: According to this story, Elizabeth Bathory's baths in blood began as a means to cure her epilepsy. It didn't work.
Blood Magic: Subverted. Both Elizabeth and Vlad are led by different circumstances to believe that the blood of their victims will heal their impurities or help them circumvent death. It absolutely does not.
Bloodier and Gorier: In spades. Both characters are children at the start of the novel and don't really go into detail about the daily violence around them, perhaps because it's something they don't want to think about. The violence has become quite graphic by the time the story ends.
The bailey was exquisitely decorated: I had lights all over the brush and lutenists sitting up on the palisades, I had the best of the sweet soups served there on the clothed table, I had my pageboys, five of them, hoisted up on pikes, and yet I was abandoned by all of my companions, even Istvan!
Child Soldiers: A young Vlad and the rest of the Janissaries. Later Vlad's little brother, Radu, whom he spent the middle section of the novel believing to be dead.
Vlad also conscripts them later in his military career.
Church Militant: Vlad. Even as a teen, he is overly zealous about his faith in Christianity, possibly because he's really got nothing else. Reaches tragic heights by the story's end.
Character Development: Arguably the entire point of the story. Neither character even remotely resembles his/her childhood counterpart by the end of the story, except that their basic interests have remained the same.
Chekhov's Gun: The name Elizabeth. Elizabeth reveals in one of her letters to Vlad that her name comes from the old Hungarian for "God is My Oath." When Darvulia betrays Elizabeth to the Holy Roman Emperor, she utters, "God is my oath." This is a major clue that Darvulia is really the Emperor Maximilian's daughter, Elizabeth of Bohemia, in disguise.
I have offered Dorotta use of the bath at her own leisure but she declined. I suppose she prefers to wash annually.
Composite Character: Sultan Mehmed is a composite of his real counterpart and his father who started the war that Vlad is trying to end.
Crossing the Desert: A brief segment of Vlad's story has the Turkish army setting up camp in a desert, probably Syria.
Culture Clash: Elizabeth is very racist toward Slovaks, which is historically accurate of Hungarians during her time period, but in Elizabeth's case it is implied to be a result of her discordial relationship with Ferencz and Johannes, both of whom are from Slovakia. Interestingly, her favorite handmaid, Dorotta Szentes, is also Slovakian, but Elizabeth has no problem with her except occasionally describing her as unrefined.
She also hates the English. In a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment, this starts making sense in later chapters. Elizabeth explains that the English governess who took care of her as a child often made her feel like a freak.
Darker and Edgier: The writing style as well as the series of events mature at exactly the same pace as Vlad and Elizabeth do.
Deconstruction: Of vampire romance. Granted, neither Vlad nor Elizabeth is a vampire, and vampires within the context of the book are definitely fictitious, but when one character's drinking blood and the other is bathing in it, the imagery is all too heavily evoked.
Disabled Means Helpless: Elizabeth suffers from some form of worsening epilepsy, probably a result of chronic focal encephalitis. Her sickness makes others (even her own parents) see her as a pariah and a freak. Later in life, especially after her epilepsy accidentally causes the death of her child, she starts bathing in blood in a last-ditch attempt to cure her condition, making her more of a Sympathetic Murderer than an out-and-out psychopath.
Don't You Dare Pity Me!: The only time Vlad displays a temper toward Elizabeth is when she accuses him of mourning his deceased brothers.
Dramatically Missing the Point: To illustrate just how inhuman he is, Vlad completely doesn't understand why Elizabeth is upset when her daughter dies.
Vlad spends later segments in the story traveling Europe in search of Sultan Mehmed, who has gone into hiding. Disguised as a commoner, he has a conversation with a couple of Bulgarians and discovers for the first time how hated he is by his subjects, specifically because he forces young boys and unwed women to join his army. Vlad does not understand why this is such a bad thing, and in fact he seems to genuinely think that subjecting children to violence at an early age is necessary for them to grow up. When you realize that this is because he spent his childhood as a child soldier...
Dual Wielding: Vlad is taught how to dual-wield swords as part of his Janissary training, a talent he passes on to his own forces.
Empathic Environment: When a teenage Vlad escapes the Turkish army and starts heading home for the first time in years, it begins to rain. (Not the novel's first instance of rainfall, though.)
Epistolary Novel: The entire novel is told in a series of letters. The usual order is Vlad-Elizabeth-Vlad-Elizabeth, but on occasion Vlad or Elizabeth will forget to write back, leading to a break in the pattern.
Fangs Are Evil / Scary Teeth: Vlad invokes this purposely, largely inspired by protovampiric folklore during his time period. Since the Turks guarding the Janissaries confiscate their weapons at night, leaving Vlad with no plausible means of escape, Vlad decides to make his teeth into a weapon by ritually sharpening them.
Feminism: Both played straight and subverted. Vlad initially seems like a feminist, much to the surprise of the reader. His fondness for Elizabeth leads to a lengthy section in which he writes to her about the civilizations of old in which men and women were equal citizens. He later reveals himself to be a complete hypocrite, even impaling a woman his advisor tries to get him to marry, just because "She's not Elizabeth!"
Surprisingly, Elizabeth herself is an actual feminist, to the distaste of the rest of her family. She tries (and in some cases, succeeds) to write several laws raising women's place in society. That she bathes in her servant girls' blood is more of an act of desperation, coupled with a sense of entitlement bred by her high standing in life.
Flat Earth Atheist: Elizabeth very staunchly denies the existence of a God, even though she cannot explain how her letters are reaching Vlad.
Foregone Conclusion: It's almost impossible to go into the story not knowing how both characters will turn out.
Foreign Queasine: Vlad, sometimes; he finds it unthinkable that Balkan men will eat chilled cucumber soup in the middle of winter, but on the other hand, he has no problem with Turkish food.
Friendless Background: Both characters are pretty isolated from their peers as children, as well as hated by their families (Vlad's brothers mock and ostracize him for possibly being born out of wedlock, as he does not resemble anyone in his family; Elizabeth's brothers are slightly nicer but her parents treat her like a cross between a ticking time bomb and a festering plague). This is arguably the reason the kids latch onto one another so tightly once they've overcome their initial animosity.
Gratuitous Foreign Language: Very slightly played with. Because Vlad spends his childhood fighting for the Turkish army, he only knows Ottoman military phrases and not their Romanian or Latin counterpart. E.g., a squadron is a takim and a captain is an agha. He seems to think alayli means commanding officer, but in actuality it merely meant that the soldier giving him orders was an enlisted man who rose up through the ranks.
Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Vlad and Elizabeth are both imagined as blonds; Vlad's hair is at one point referred to as a lion's mane while Elizabeth is compared to the moon. When they are young and innocent, this gives a wholesome and positive image. Probably done on purpose, knowing that both kids will grow up to be total monsters.
Hannibal Has a Point: Sultan Mehmed. He may be the antagonist, and he and his men are responsible for some great cruelty, but Vlad proves to be capable of greater evils, and the points he makes on religion would be fair from a modern perspective.
If It's You, It's Okay: Vlad hates anyone who's not a Christian. Unless they are Elizabeth. As the novel progresses, he lampshades the number of things Elizabeth is that he hates, and how he loves her regardless.
Immortality Immorality: Half of Vlad's story is about trying to find a way to outlive his natural lifespan, so he can finally meet Elizabeth face to face.
Important Haircut: Vlad cuts off his long hair after escaping life as a child soldier. It's not entirely about symbolism, though, and more a matter of practicality; the hair was weighing him down.
Ineffectual Loner: Elizabeth tells Vlad she prefers silence and solitude to human company. One has to wonder if the only reason she can bond with him is because he's a piece of paper.
She seems to hit all the requirements of schizotypal personality disorder.
I Will Wait for You: In a twist, it's Vlad, not Elizabeth, who takes this viewpoint, proposing that he will find a way to outlive natural mortality so he can make his way to her time period. He evokes this again at the end of the book when Elizabeth has been killed and he decides to march into Hell after her. Elizabeth is much more realistic about the odds that they'll end up together.
Kick the Dog: Both have their moments, but prominently, Elizabeth sending her little brother to his death just so he won't challenge her for Hungary's throne. It's strongly implied she killed her father, too.
Large Ham: Vlad really likes to be the center of attention...
Lonely Together: The reason they bond so deeply is because they have nothing else to hold onto. Elizabeth herself points this out toward the end.
Love Makes You Evil / Love Makes You Crazy: Vlad begins drinking the blood of his enemies hoping that it will make him immortal, such as the strigoi (i.e. vampires) in old Romanian myths. Why? So he can be with Elizabeth in her time period, of course.
Mood-Swinger: Vlad seems to suffer from borderline personality disorder. He even tells Elizabeth that he can only hate or love without any middle ground.
Borderline personality disorder is the least of his problems. He also seems to suffer from histrionic personality disorder, schizoid personality disorder, and mild schizophrenia. And, of course, he is a psychopath. Why does Elizabeth love him, again? Oh, right, because she's just as nuts...
Morality Pet: Istvan Bathory to Vlad. Also, considering how manic both main characters become, they are sort of morality pets toward each other.
Another one for Vlad is his little brother Radu. After spending years thinking Radu was dead and slowly devolving into a sadistic mass murderer, Vlad is unexpectedly reunited with his very much alive brother. His first course of action is to smile incredulously and touch Radu's hair. It is the only kind moment he's ever had in the novel.
Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic: Even as kids, both Vlad and Elizabeth are beautifully articulate. Then when you remember they're Royal Brats and all their dialogue is composed of letters to one another, when they've had more than enough time to figure out what they want to write down, it all makes sense.
Redemption Quest: Elizabeth tries to invoke this by taking in and educating Hungarian and Slovakian peasant girls. Still, she continues to mentally unravel.
Vlad, too, if you think about it. He may insist that he's always doing the right thing and acting in service of God, but why does he spend such large chunks of time scouring the Bible for passages on forgiveness?
Reliable Traitor: As adults, Istvan Bathory to Vlad, culminating in his Heel-Face Turn. Emperor Frederick would also apply if he weren't such a kind and empathetic man.
Right Under Their Noses: Vlad wages war with the Ottoman Empire largely because he wants to kill the Sultan. He fights battle after battle, besieges stronghold after stronghold, and the bastard is nowhere to be found. Actually, he is hiding out in Brasov, the very same church town where Vlad has all his weapons forged. Vlad does catch up with him in the end, but only after receiving some advice from an ex-Black Forces soldier.
Rule of Symbolism: Both Vlad and Elizabeth meet their ends at the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor, though it's a different Emperor for each of them.
Spell My Name with an S: It's "Vlad Drakulya," not the more common "Vlad Dracula." This is possibly to fit the explanation Elizabeth later gives: Between their native languages, which share a lot of commonalities, adding "-ya" to the end of a word means "Son/Daughter of." So "Drakul" (Dragon) + "-ya" = "Son of the Dragon."
The real-life man known today as Vlad Dracula signed all his documents as "Vladislaus Drakulya."
Elizabeth mentions very early on to Vlad that there's an unmarked gravestone outside Castle Poenari. Later, when Poenari is in Vlad's possession, he plants an unmarked grave in memory of Elizabeth's dead child.
Elizabeth wraps one of her letters around a crucifix which she gives to Vlad as an ironic present. The crucifix was originally given to her by her grandfather, Stephen Bathory. As a mark of friendship, Vlad later gives the crucifix to Istvan Bathory, Elizabeth's great-grandfather.
Elizabeth tells Vlad that her great-grandfather (Istvan) held the title of "Prince of Poland." During Vlad's timeline, when the Prince Sobieski dies of old age, Vlad snatches his vacant title and gives it to Istvan.
As a child, Vlad's main inspiration to escape the Turkish stronghold is that Elizabeth tells him someone with his name is eventually going to become the scourge of the Ottoman Empire.
While held captive by the Turks, a young Vlad buries Elizabeth's letters in the dirt for safekeeping. When the Turks unexpectedly switch campsites, Vlad loses all of her letters. Later, as an adult, Elizabeth has some of her men go to Byzantium to dig up the letters. The letters she wrote only a couple of years ago have suddenly aged about a century, which naturally freaks her out.
Elizabeth has her handmaid draw a sketch of her face, which she sends to Vlad in one of her letters. Vlad has a portrait made of the sketch and hangs it in Castle Poenari. Elizabeth mentions to Vlad that when her family lived in Castle Poenari, no such portrait was hanging there. Turns out all his stuff seemingly gets auctioned off after his death. Years later, the portrait winds up in Emperor Maximilian's palace and is probably what launches Maximilian and Darvulia's "witchcraft" campaign against Elizabeth.
Early on, in trying to help a young Vlad escape the Janissaries, Elizabeth wraps her letter around a bunch of ducats and sends them back in time to him. Ducats weren't being used as currency during Vlad's time period; Vlad even mentions that the Turkish doctor who was overseeing him must have been baffled when he confiscated the coins. Fast forward to Vlad's adult years, and suddenly ducats are the currency being used in Vlad's timeline. It's implied that Elizabeth might have had the same effect when she described how a hunting rifle works in another letter.
During a later section in the story, Vlad is so lonely that he travels to the town of Cachtice just hoping to get a glimpse of Elizabeth's home, Castle Csejthe, which resides on the Carpathians there. In searching for it, he describes the castle to the villagers, who insist no such castle exists. He realizes it hasn't been built yet. But probably will be now that he planted the idea.
Stalker with a Crush: Both characters, as kids, latch onto each other and refuse to let go, even as adults. As they lose everyone and everything else around them, they cling tighter. They believe they are in love, but as Elizabeth points out, they can't even be certain the other writer is who he/she says he/she is, leaving the credibility of their bond questionable and unhealthy at best.
Temporal Mutability: Vlad contemplates trying to change Elizabeth's future by killing off the ancestors of the man who raped and impregnated her on her impotent husband's command. This is also the entire reason he befriends her great-grandfather: He wants to keep her bloodline safe until the day she's born.
Temporary Blindness: Subverted. Vlad is blinded in one eye after a beating and waves it off, expecting the damage to heal eventually. It doesn't, and he retains the partial blindness well into adulthood.
Title Drop: Subverted. Neither Vlad nor Elizabeth are referred to by the titles of Count or Countess.
Timey-Wimey Ball: Caused by the plot device that lets Vlad and Elizabeth write letters to one another with a good hundred years between their eras. In some cases Vlad will write Elizabeth a letter and receive a reply only a few days later, but entire months have passed on Elizabeth's end. Vlad and Elizabeth are respectively fourteen and thirteen at the start of the story; by the time it's over, and Vlad and Elizabeth are both grown up, Elizabeth is older than Vlad.
A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing: "Darvulia" is really the Holy Roman Emperor's daughter Elizabeth, planted in Elizabeth's service to fill her head with heathen ideas and turn the public against her. Presumably so her dad could snatch Elizabeth's throne without any contest.
And sometimes in thinking of you I feel myself a young girl again, another illusion of mine, and I am suddenly breathless and small. In truth, I feel that I am always that small girl, except that I am trapped constantly in a cage outwardly made of stone, and the cage is the way in which I present myself to the world that surrounds me. I can have no weakness lest it be exploited.