October 16th, 2010

the red queen.

Review: The Countess by Rebecca Johns

The Countess

by Rebecca Johns


Erzsebet Bathory was reputed to bathe in the blood of virgins to preserve her youth.  She’s been called the first known female serial killer; her victims may have numbered in the hundreds.  But do the swirling rumors have any basis in fact, or were they merely planted to discredit a powerful woman so that other Hungarian nobles could claim her lands and wealth?  The Countess, a fictional account of Bathory’s life, is written as Erzsebet’s memoirs, written in a letter to her son to explain her deeds from her prison cell.  She starts by recounting her childhood and the early years of her loveless arranged marriage.  Erzsebet lives in treacherous times, when political power is constantly shifting and up for grabs.  Unsatisfied in love, Erzsebet chafes at her powerlessness, and exercises strict control over the women in her household – the one area in which she is truly has power. 


For such a notorious woman, I would expect a book full of blood and gore.  Johns took a very different approach, focusing instead on the political machinations of Eastern Europe in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  It’s a much less sensational approach to the Bathory story, but not as exciting as I hoped.  Erzsebet’s childhood is prettily described, but the years when she raised her own children are sped through very quickly.  Too bad.  It would have been nice to see if her children were aware of their mother’s brutal streak as they grew up.


Since the story is told in the first person, Erzsebet is full of explanations for why she treated her servants so strictly.  But her version of events is so tame compared to the legends about her it’s disappointing.  I guess I just wanted her to be larger than life, a real monster.  That way this could be a really psychological novel, probing the mind of a deluded killer.  Instead I get a rather normal woman demonized by a restrictive society.  It’s…anticlimactic. 


This is a decent book, if you want to read a book about Hungarian nobility.  It’s definitely a very different, sympathetic approach to the woman known to history as the Blood Countess.


3 out of 5 stars


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