A novel that sets out to humanize and demythologize Vlad the Impaler...though he’s still very naughty.
The chief rivalry here is between Turks and Christians in the 15th century. Those sides are represented by Sultan Murad Han—and later by Mehmet, his son—and by Vlad Dracula. We first meet Vlad as a janissary, a 17-year-old Christian slave in the Turkish court, and find he’s a fine pupil, speaker of numerous languages and even reluctant scholar of the Koran. What begins as competition and gamesmanship between Vlad and Mehmet escalates into hatred, especially given the fact that Mehmet’s father, the sultan, has had Vlad’s father beheaded and Vlad’s older brother Mircea tortured and buried alive. Mehmet is pushed over the edge when Vlad kidnaps the young sultan’s new concubine, Ilona, and spirits her away to Wallachia, the small kingdom where Vlad has his castle. For six months, Vlad endures the tortures (literally) of the prison at Tokat, mercilessly flayed (and worse) by a dwarf and his able, sadistic assistant. At Tokat, Vlad not only learns but internalizes the prison motto: “You torture others so they cannot torture you.” And indeed, Humphreys’ narrative is filled with stomach-wrenching scenes of violence. (We find out, for example, that Mehmet has had the stomachs of seven servants slit open because one of them had stolen a cucumber, and he wanted to find the thief.) Vlad eventually embarks on a quest to free Constantinople from Muslim rule, an impossibility given the odds against him, but he does have the satisfaction of exacting revenge on some of his previous enemies.
While we learn much about falconry and medieval warfare, we learn rather too much about inflicting pain.