Saved from the brink of death by a mysterious stranger, Constanta is transformed from a medieval peasant into a bride fit for an undying king. But when Dracula draws a cunning aristocrat and a starving artist into his web of passion and deceit, Constanta realizes that her beloved is capable of terrible things. Finding comfort in the arms of her rival consorts, she begins to unravel their husband’s dark secrets.
With the lives of everyone she loves on the line, Constanta will have to choose between her own freedom and her love for her husband. But bonds forged by blood can only be broken by death.
A Dowry of Blood is the sapphic, polyam Dracula retelling I didn’t know I needed until I saw the synopsis. And thankfully, it lived it up to the premise. This is a relatively short book, at about 250 pages, but it packs a hefty punch.
The main character, Constanta, is a Romanian peasant girl who is transformed into a vampire as she lies dying, her entire family victims of war. Constanta’s story is told as a letter to the unnamed Dracula, as she recounts her transformation from wide-eyed young woman to a wife trapped in an abusive marriage that lasts centuries. When two new ‘brides’ are brought into the mix – sharp Magdelena and fiery Alexi – Constanta realises the extent of her husband’s manipulation and begins to find the courage to break free.
It takes a little getting used to, but the decision to deliberately not name the villain (even if we all know who he’s meant to represent) is so powerful: in both fiction and real life, the names and stories of perpetrators are shared and remembered, while their victims become nameless, faceless women with no agency except to further myths and legends. (A great recent read on this topic was the The Five by Hallie Rubenfold, which aims to share the stories of the women murdered by Jack the Ripper). I am privileged enough not to have personal experience in this area, but I will also say the depictions of gaslighting and emotional abuse resonated very clearly: you can see the villain expertly pulling Constanta’s puppet-strings – and Magdalena’s, and Alexi’s – but you could also understand and empathise with why the characters might decide to stay.
As for the rest of this book, the writing is frankly gorgeous. It’s vivid, poetic and lush, and perfectly captures the sensual, Gothic feel of the original Dracula without ever becoming overly florid or self-indulgent. I definitely found myself stopping to re-read sentences to take in the imagery. The character work is also excellent. In the space of a short book, Gibson fleshes out Constanta’s relationship with her husband, her burgeoning relationships with Constanta and Alexi (both together and separately) and their relationships with each other. Each of these relationships feels distinct and directly related to the desires and fears of the individual characters, and it is so satisfying to see Constanta, Magdalena and Alexi each forging their own path towards the end.
There isn’t a lot of world-building – this book spans about six centuries, from 1300s Romania to 1900s Petrograd and Paris (and a sojourn in medieval Vienna, my favourite location in the story) but the sense of time passing is fairly superficial. That didn’t impact my personal enjoyment of the story – this is deliberately written as a close-knit tale rather than a sweeping epic – but if you expect deep historical insights from this novel you might be disappointed.
After this book, I’m keen to check out Gibson’s shorter work, and can only hope she comes out with another full length novel in the future.
Note: I received an ARC from Nyx Publishing. A Dowry of Blood was published on 31 January 2021.