Kate Paulk’s IMPALER is a seriously different way to look at Vlad the Impaler. Historically, Prince (later King) Vlad has always been drawn as a madman and berserker, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. However, as Paulk has ably shown here, no one would’ve followed Vlad Draculea (Paulk’s transliteration, to avoid any possible confusion with Bram Stoker’s DRACULA) if he didn’t have good qualities — and in this version of Vlad’s story, Vlad shows many outstanding qualities including love, loyalty, friendship, sacrifice, and much more. While this is a historical with some fantasy — and a bit of an alternate history at that, which I’ll get to in a bit — the bones of this novel rest squarely on Paulk’s strong historicity and excellent understanding of what we’d now call realpolitik.
The time is 1476. Vlad Draculea has started to re-take Wallachia for the third time (first was as a child, second under the sponsorship of Prince Matthias Corvinus of Hungary) and has two hundred men given to him by one of his best friends, Prince Stephen of Moldavia. With luck as well as skill, Vlad re-takes possession of Wallachia and promises to do better than the first time he’d ruled it as an adult (approximately 1456 to 1462) when he’d murdered many of his sitting boyars (noblemen, equivalent to earls, counts and dukes, dependent on how much territory any given boyar had) and had ruled by the force of his will along with what he’d then felt was the quickest and easiest weapon: terror.
Note that Vlad’s nickname of “Tepes” was given after his death, though the Turks often called him “the Impaler Prince” due to his method of execution. Vlad hated the Turks, who were Muslim, and often used stakes to impale his enemies, living or dead. (To insult the Muslims, who, in historical context, Paulk accurately calls “Mohammedans,” Vlad would have the stakes coated in pig fat as the Muslims believed that touching anything to do with pork would defile them, soiling them to the point they could not go to Heaven.) Vlad was a devout Christian to his death and his faith, along with his torturous path to anything approaching what he believed was redemption, is described exceptionally well here by Paulk. (That Vlad impaled his enemies is unquestioned, but why he did so has really never been explained except by sheer cruelty, which Paulk shows may well not be the most accurate motivation. The fact that everyone tended to do this at this time in war against whomever whatever side felt were infidels tends to go by the boards.)
Prince Vlad of Wallachia is a much different man in 1476; he’s been tempered by the love of a very good woman, Ilona, his second wife, and now has three children — one by his first wife Cneajna, Mircea, and two by Ilona, those being Vladut (“little Vlad”) and Alexandru, the latter being most likely asthmatic and sickly. He’d been imprisoned by the King of Hungary on false pretenses after fleeing Wallachia in 1462 and that changed him (along with his love for Ilona); the change was positive, as he learned to rely upon his love of learning and scholarship along with his talent for war. In 1476, while Vlad realizes terror sometimes must be used, he’d rather not use it unless it’s absolutely called for — a particularly welcome change, and one that makes sense in the context of Vlad’s maturity.
If you know anything about Vlad the Impaler, you’ll realize that there are some diversions from history here along with a rather unusual take on Vlad’s berserker tendencies. The truest form of alternate history is that of “what may well could’ve happened,” and that’s exactly what Paulk gives us — a Vlad who is tortured by what he’s done, who has a curse of drinking blood that he can’t do anything about but tries to use on the battlefield alone (rather than using it senselessly as he now believes he had in his prior reign). A Vlad who realizes that love and loyalty are far more important than territory, and a Vlad who hates that good men often die needlessly in war — but realizes if he doesn’t do it, with his gifts and talents, even more men will die needlessly, and possibly more innocent men in the towns and cities Vlad has pledged to protect in the bargain.
This Vlad Tepes is a far, far different man than history has given him credit for — he’s sober, reliable, responsible, dependable, and realizes full well who is truly in Vlad’s corner (Prince Stephen) and who, while unreliable, must be treated as if he’s still in Vlad’s corner no matter how much Vlad’s been betrayed by him (Corvinus). This is a Prince Vlad who must use his gifts wisely, and treats his love of blood (and berserker tendencies, which Paulk puts together and calls a “curse” — which makes perfect sense in context) as an impediment but not a fatal one if managed wisely and well. (Think of this “curse” as a type of disability; all Vlad can do is manage it well and live with it.) And best of all, this Vlad is a very wise and able ruler — still someone capable of cruelty, but not one who needlessly provokes anyone anymore, because he realizes he has no time for it.
Here, Vlad must use what he’s learned of the Turks in order to fight them and free his people along with what he’s learned of life along the way, and this makes perfect sense in historical context. This is an astonishing take on Vlad that makes the point that Vlad had risen above much of his upbringing (he was raised by the Turkish court but that was no sinecure; he was often tortured physically and possibly even sexually abused) and had learned a great deal from life, and wanted to rule his people wisely and well. Paulk has ably shown that there was a reason nobles believed in noblesse oblige, and that it’s quite possible that Vlad III indeed felt exactly that way (which is why, at the somewhat advanced-for-the-times age of 45, he was attempting to re-take Wallachia and lead it in 1476).
Anyway, if you love history, you will love IMPALER. If you love intrigue, you will appreciate IMPALER, and if you enjoy stories of self-sacrifice, nobility, unusual friendships and the willingness of someone to set his own personal “curse” (disability) aside in the course of what he can’t help but see as his duty, well, then you’ll admire IMPALER as much as I do.
Grade: A-plus. A must-read, superlative, tour de force that makes you actually root for Vlad III — what more do you want? (Except to read more from Kate Paulk, of course; the good news there is, she has another novel out from the Naked Reader later this year.)
—— reviewed by Barb