Review: The Countess

The Countess: A NovelThe Countess
by Rebecca Johns

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Countess / 978-0-307-58845-6

Probably everyone has heard in passing of the dark Countess Báthory; I'm pretty sure she even warranted a mention in a minor side-quest in "Diablo 2". Don't buy this book expecting a horrific thriller, however - Rebecca Johns' countess is as likely to admit to murdering virgins and bathing in their blood as Philipa Gregory's Anne Boleyn is to admit to witchcraft and ensorcellment of Henry VIII.

I can't drive this particular point home often enough - although murder does take place in this book (and the body count does climb fairly high), the actual killings cover maybe 5-10 pages total. This is, at its heart, a historical fiction based around a sympathetic Countess Báthory. The novel follows the "usual" historical fiction setup - an autobiographical tale starting with the early life of the young countess, her betrothal at a young age to a complete stranger, the raising of their children together, and the management of the affairs of the household. All of this is extremely interesting, and Johns is so careful with her subject matter that it's difficult to not sink sympathetically into the character of the beleaguered countess.

Even when the murders begin, late into the pages of the novel, it's hard not to feel that the countess is probably one of the more well-adjusted characters within the book (her methods of torture were taught to her by her mother and husband, and her adoption of such methods were largely what brought favor from both), and her victims seem almost Too Dumb To Live by comparison - if you live with a mistress who beats people to death for stealing and fornication, it's probably prudent to *not* steal or fornicate with your free time, after all. It takes a careful hand to make a serial murderer sympathetic, and Johns manages eerily - to the point where I was often astonished at how sympathetic the countess was, even as the nameless bodies piled higher behind the "real" narrative.

This isn't a thriller or even a major page-turner, though - it's solid historical fiction, but suffers (in my opinion) the same "ending fatigue" that historical fiction stories usually grapple with near the end. If you enjoy historical fiction, particularly of "dark" figures, then you make like "The Countess", but expect to grapple with moral ambiguity while you read - for all her murders, the Countess Báthory manages to come away as the best-behaved and most noble character in her own 'autobiography'.

NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through Amazon Vine.

~ Ana Mardoll

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