It takes a lot of confidence to set a novel not only in the past but in a culture alien to the majority of readers. While most fantasy novels use unfamiliar settings they are invented by the author who can then put as much into it as they like and no-one can challenge the authenticity of the background. Historical novelists do a lot of research to get their settings right – at least, the good ones do – and if there is an issue it is deliberate. For example, Hilary Mantell admits to condensing the timespan for Wolf Hall because fiction requires a faster pace of story-telling than real life. Reasons for differences between the fiction and the known facts are not a problem, it is when the research is done imperfectly, like Roman cavalry using stirrups. (In the film, they were forced to by health and safety). Setting a story in a different culture where the names of people and places do not easily trip off the tongue can lead to annoyance and frustration. Again, fantasy novels are prone to this. The best authors find ways to avoid the trap of incomprehensibility. Jasper Kent set himself the challenge of writing five novels in historical Russia. He has done a good job.
At the end of each novel in this quintet, it seems that the story is over and that the survivors can relax and get on with their lives. Vampires, however, have a habit of coming back however dead they seem to be. There are two who run through this sequence. Zmyeevich, who at one time went by the name of Dracula, and Iuda who was once and English scientist with a fascination for the natural history of vampires. For them, the lust for power has been as imperative as the need for blood. Ranged against them have been the members of the Danilov family.
As The Last Rite opens, it is 1917. Mihail Danilov, the last of his line, is an ageing man of sixty, living in relative contentment with his long time mistress, Nadya. As anyone who knows any Russian history will be aware, this is a time of upheaval, not just in Russia itself, but across Europe. The other books in the series have been set at times of constitutional crisis. This in no different. The Tsar is weak, the people are looking for reforms he is unable and unwilling to give. There is a movement to depose him.
One evening, on his way back from the Duma – the government’s ineffectual representative body – Danilov sees what he initially thinks is a soldier abusing a young girl. When he tries to intervene, not only does he find that the girl is a prostitute, but he recognises the man as Nadya’s brother Ilya, who, he discovers has been reported dead. This leads Danilov to realise that the vampires are back. He spent his youth hunting down and killing them, now he has to start again at a time of his life when he’d rather not. In order to find where the nest is, he follows Ilya only to find that the leader of this group is his uncle Dimitry. Dimitry explains that he has created these vampires to protect the Romanovs. Danilov is inclined to believe him without trusting too much, until he finds that the girl in the alley is another vampire, one that Dimitry doesn’t know about. She calls herself Anastasia and has very different, totally selfish plans.
Originally, she was the young lover of Iuda when he was still a youth living in England. He had captured a French vampire and was holding him prisoner in order to study him. When Anastasia fell pregnant, he threw her in with the vampire, expecting her to die. Instead, she was turned and arrives in Russia with the intention of resurrecting Zmyeevich. She thinks, by following the rites she has been gathering and using a sample of Zmyeevich’s blood once collected by Iuda she will do this. The other ingredient she needs is Danilov because he is a bastard of the Romanov line. She forces Danilov to drink her concoction. Instead of Zmyeevich materialising as she hopes, Danilov finds himself sharing his body with Iuda.
While there seems to be little chance of saving the Tsar and his family from the revolution, Dimitry is willing to try. At the same time he has to team up with the Danilov/Iuda personality to solve the problem of the vampires who have sided with Anastasia. An element in their fight is Ascalon. This artefact is supposedly the broken lance with which Saint George killed the dragon and since it has dragon’s blood on it, it is regarded as a dangerous weapon, though whether it will be an aid for or against the vampires is unsure.
The voice in these novels is sedate, punctuated with passages of action. Lives of the characters, while lived in dangerous times, have times of tranquillity when they can believe that the larger events belong to others even as they know their smaller actions are vitally important, though no-one will ever know. Vampires are naturally secretive. They have to be to survive but also seek to manipulate and hold tremendous power. This Danilov may be old, but he is not prepared to give up. If the Tsar cannot be saved the Russian people must be. These novels have an authenticity of both time and place. For anyone who likes historical novels with an element of fantasy, this quintet of novels is well worth seeking out. Nice to have really evil vampires for a change.