Thursday, June 27, 2013

What We're Reading: History and the Undead

When is a risk too great? Even when the possible rewards are tempting, how do you decide? Whose council do you seek? And what do you do if, after all the consideration and deliberation, you find that you’ve chosen poorly and the costs are higher than you could have possibly imagined? These are just some of the questions explored in Stoker’s Manuscript by Royce Prouty.

Joseph Barkeley is leading a comfortable life, after a rocky childhood: He and his brother were orphaned in their native Romania after their father murdered their mother. They were rescued from an orphanage and sent to be raised by nuns in Chicago. Joseph grew up to be a rare book and manuscript dealer and expert. Bernhardt, his younger brother, became a priest. They now live near each other in the parish in which they were raised in Chicago.

When Joseph receives a call inquiring about hiring him to authenticate an annotated manuscript for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it sounds like a challenging and enjoyable opportunity. When the buyer’s agent insists that, should the manuscript be genuine, Joseph secure its sale and bypass the planned auction, it becomes more challenging but still possible. Once the sale is secured, he is requested to courier the manuscript to Romania and deliver it, personally, to the anonymous buyer. If he does these things, he is promised a generous compensation.

While doing his due diligence on the manuscript, he is warned by several colleagues, customers and his brother to pass on this job--there are simply too many risks, too many things that could go wrong. But Joseph is tempted by the payment offered for what he believes will be a simple task. He will secure the manuscript, deliver it to the anonymous buyer, and collect a marvelous paycheck, ensuring stability and comfort for himself and those for whom he cares. Alas, it becomes increasingly clear, as Joseph moves through the steps to complete the transaction, that his task is going to be neither simple nor straightforward, and Joseph’s decision to accept the job will come to threaten everyone and everything he knows.

In Stoker’s Manuscript, first-time author Royce Prouty creates a sense of increasing and impending dread as everything spirals out of control. The novel is rich in historic detail, especially the history of Eastern Europe and, specifically, Romania and Transylvania. The history ranges from the 15th century, and Transylvania’s most famous--and ruthless--ruler, Vlad Tepes, to the late 20th century and the CeauČ™escu regime. There is also some fascinating background on Stoker and the writing of his most famous work. Prouty blends all of this factual background seamlessly into his fictional elements, providing the overall story with a greater sense of immediacy and urgency because so much of what is described has actually happened.

While it may seem easy to guess the identity of the reclusive, anonymous buyer in Romania, the revelation is more complex--and more satisfying--than assumptions would indicate. The tension in the novel builds relentlessly throughout to a climactic ending.

Readers of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian should enjoy Stoker’s Manuscript, as will anyone who enjoys a well-crafted tale of the undead!

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