Written By: Angela DiLella
Edited By: Grave Reviews Staff
Author: Lana Popovic
Publisher: Amulet Books (Imprint of Abrams)
Release Date: January 28, 2020
Rating: 3.5/5 Graves
For a peasant in seventeenth century Hungary, life was brutal. Anna Darvulia knows this well, as she is the eldest in a large family supported by a drunkard father and a midwife. Things look grim for Anna and her kin until a chance meeting brings her to the attention of the countess of the region known as Elizabeth Bathory. Working for the countess, Anna quickly earns her favor and so much more, but the closer she gets to Elizabeth, the more she understands Elizabeth Bathory’s real-life moniker of the “Blood Countess.”
The real Elizabeth Bathory was known for her downright inhuman treatment of servants, chambermaids, and any other young women who served her. In Blood Countess, Bathory behaves similarly, and there are a few rather nasty scenes of torture at her hands. One of Bathory’s infamous, literal bloodbaths even made it into the book. Blood Countess does shy away from the usual sensationalism associated with accounts of Bathory’s life, but the gore exists, and sometimes what is only implied is worse than what is explicitly stated on the pages.
The Grave Review
The Blood Countess is an attempt by author Lana Popovic to answer why and how the real Countess Elizabeth Bathory was so vicious and violent to other women and committed the atrocities she did. Her overall story has been heavily obscured with time, and often Bathory is only remembered for her gruesome crimes nowadays, as well as her equally as gruesome death.
Because only the more sensational aspects of her life are commonly known, I found this book to be an interesting venture: I knew where Bathory’s crimes would eventually lead (and what the crimes were), but I knew nothing of the woman herself. Through Anna Darvulia, we see the uglier aspects of Bathory’s life: her unpleasant marriage is a major facet of the story and presented as a potential cause for her violence, though it is worth noting that all possible reasons for Bathory’s cruelty are not presented as excuses or justifications for her behavior. It very clearly reflects the author’s pursuit of an explanation as to the question, why. Throughout the book, Anna, attempts to understands her mistress’s behavior and where it originated from, proving various explanations for these questions.
In line with this, Popovic uses history—provable facts and recurrent rumors—very carefully to craft her story. It would have been easy to present Bathory as a bloodthirsty maniac. However, Popovic takes the time to build Bathory’s character. For example, we see that she does have the ability to love and empathize in some way. In addition, we also see how her high education could have led Bathory to her bloody beliefs. However, the fact that her education is even hinted at is a huge divergence from most narratives about the infamous countess. At the same time, even within in these positive moments, we can see hints of the monster she will become or may have very well been all along. Anna doesn’t always believe the rumors she hears about the countess before she sees the countess in action. A careful reader, even if they are not familiar with the real-life Bathory, should be able to catch the breadcrumbs Popovic drops.
There is only one aspect I had trouble with once in a while within the book. No historical fiction book is ever 100% accurate. With Blood Countess (2020), it appeared that the timeline was compressed for the sake of the narrative. This makes sense, as the real Bathory’s crimes lasted for decades. But as a result, I felt as if I never really had a grasp on the passage of time. Anna remarked in the last fifty or so pages that a long time had passed. The passage of time was not clearly defined throughout the book until the Epilogue chapter was reached This made references about the passage of time throughout Blood Countess convoluted. That said, it is questionable whether my tenuous knowledge of the countess was the real culprit here and skewed my views on the entertainment value of the book. I am interested to see how a reader without prior knowledge of the real Bathory feels about this.
Ultimately, this book is an intelligent and thoughtful look at a complex historical figure. Popovic makes it clear through her writing that this was a topic she has researched extensively and carefully. It is not dry at all, though, as she gives us a lively main character in Anna who struggles for and against Bathory just as much as the reader will, and just as much as I suspect Popovic did as she did research for and wrote this story.
I would recommend Blood Countess (2020) for readers with an interest in history, though I would also say that historical interest is not necessary to enjoy this book. This will be an enjoyable read even if you are not a history buff. Anna and her struggles against the madness around her, as well as the mystery behind Bathory’s impulses, are compelling enough in their own right, and it becomes a very difficult book to put down even if you know how things really did end.
For the reasons above, Grave Reviews gives Blood Countess (2020) 3.5 out of 5 graves.
Blood Countess by Lana Popovic can be preordered here.
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