Book Review: Blood Countess by Lana Popović (2020)

Tuesday, February 11th, 2020

“And if I was not deranged before, I have since succumbed.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence against women, including physical abuse, sexual assault, and murder.)

But I see it. Just as I see Lord Nádasdy’s hand close around her wrist, the skin paling with the force of his grip. I can see how it hurts her, in the way her smile slides off her face.

For all the gold and silver in her coffers, in some ways the countess is just like me.

A woman, with a man’s cruel hand around her wrist.

And is it truly Ferenc’s abuse, I begin to wonder, watching the corded muscles in Elizabeth’s neck, the wild elation flooding her face with every fall of the switch, that casts her to these abject depths? Or might there be some black vein of malice riving through her, too, nothing at all to do with him?

But that cannot be, it cannot. I could not love someone evil, and yet I love her so dearly, shudder with yearning for her touch.

Anna Darvulia is just thirteen the first time she meets the Countess Elizabeth Báthory. She unwittingly chases her kitten Zsuzsi, freshly rescued from a pack of bloodthirsty boys, in front of her Lady’s wedding procession – and, miraculously, lives to see another day.

Several years will pass before Elizabeth summons Anna to her side – or rather, to the bedside of her secret, illegitimate son Gabor, in the throes of a mysterious illness. Anna, the daughter of the village midwife and a skilled healer in her own right (“witch,” whisper some), diagnoses it as an infected bug bite and delivers Gabor from the jaws of death.

Elizabeth rewards Anna with employment, and enough coin to feed her struggling family – first in the scullery, then as a chambermaid to the Lady herself. Despite the rumors about Elizabeth’s cruel streak, Anna finds herself drawn to Elizabeth – so lovely, captivating, and mischievous. So like Anna herself, tied to an abusive man by the ropes of the patriarchy.

As Anna becomes more entwined with Elizabeth, she begins to see that the woman she loves is indeed the sociopath that everyone speaks about in hushed whispers in shadowy corners. She gets a front-row seat to Elizabeth’s cruelty – like, a literal front seat – yet Anna stubbornly clings to the fantasy that she can fix Elizabeth, pull her back from the edge of depravity; or, failing that, temper her abuse, if only a little. But when Anna realizes that she is as expendable as the rest, she takes drastic action to end Elizabeth’s reign of terror.

Very loosely based on the historical “Countess Dracula,” Blood Countess is not exactly what I expected. For one, the honest-to-goodness, vampiric bloodletting comes pretty late in the story. (In some ways, this almost feels like Elizabeth’s origin story.) The journey there is as much a psychological thriller as a slash-’em-up horror story.

Anna is a fascinating character, and her reactions to Elizabeth – her knee-jerk disbelief of the rumors, coupled with her justifications when she witnesses Elizabeth’s rage for herself – feels a lot like contemporary excuses we make for men who do bad things: “Well, he’s never hurt me personally, so he must be a good guy.” or “He was provoked.” or “But what about all the good he’s done for women.” Like, it was painful at times to witness Anna’s journey to the truth; onto her, I projected the faces of Ghislaine Maxwell, or the women seated at Harvey Weinstein’s table when he was so bravely called out by Kelly Bachman, Zoe Stuckless, and Amber Rollo. Handmaids of the patriarchy, if you will.

If anything, Blood Countess is an amazing case study of how abusers get away with it for so long. Elizabeth’s gender and her (perceived) connections with Anna make it all the more complex and meaty – doubly so with all the red herrings Popović throws down about men behaving badly. Did Ferenc and Mr. Darvulia deserve to die? Probably. But sometimes women (especially rich white women) are terrible too. Elizabeth’s masterful gaslighting of Anna was the icing on the cake.

Popović’s prose is gorgeous and lush and dark and sexy. Horrible yet exquisite. It’s like a rich piece of red velvet cake (decidedly not vegan), topped with not-fake blood icing. Your favorite Halloween candy, with razor blades hidden inside (just like mom warned you about!). Deliciously dreadful.

Come for the historical horror, stay for the doomed F/F, would-be/could-be Thelma & Louise-esque romance.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)