Monday, March 25, 2013

Review: The Countess by Rebecca Johns

Title: The Countess
Author: Rebecca Johns
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Crown
Published: 2010
Pages: 304

Rating: 3 out of 10

This is the fictional story of Erzsebet, or Elizabeth, Bathory, a notorious countess who is sometimes referred to as history's first female serial killer. Erzsebet is placed into an arranged marriage at a young age, to a husband who remains aloof and cold with her. Determined to be a proper lady of her new household with or without her husband's affection, Erzsebet installs rules and doles out strict, but for the most part fair, punishments on her servants. Eventually, her iron hand in the manor comes to the attention of her husband, who praises her for her strength and begins to fall in love with the stony woman his wife is becoming. After her husband's death, Erzsebet continues to rule her servants - particularly young female maids - with power and authority, growing more and more heavy handed as time goes by.

This story was interesting, though it was under developed in every aspect.

Erzsebet is, of course, a fascinating historical character, but did that translate into this novel? The answer is, sadly, no. Our main character remains mostly unknown to us. When I first read about her vicious cruelty toward her maids, I found myself wondering what her motives were. Was she bitter toward other females for their beauty, or for their hold over her deceased husband? Was she simply a sadistic, twisted woman? Or was she just trying to be strict, but got carried away?
This last option is the one that Erzsebet stubbornly proclaims to be true though-out the story. I got the feeling that this was not quite correct, but the author does not contradict or confirm his villain / heroine's opinion of herself.
The author could have made this into a way to better the story - a character telling the reader she is something, when the reader can see otherwise, but is still not quite certain... If done well, this is a plot device that I always love.
Not so here, however. Erzsebet remained faceless and lifeless all the way.

*Mild spoilers*

Up until quite close to the end, I thought that the book was going to close in favor of the possibility that Erzsebet Bathory was innocent. It never seemed that she actually did anything demented and sadistic, as I was expecting.
However, when we begin to see tiny glimpses of her tortures, I was surprised (and not in a good way), and then frustrated.
Couldn't the author have told us? Perhaps if she had tricked the reader into thinking Erzsebet was innocent, and then stunned us with the shocking knowledge that actually she isn't, it would have been a good plot tactic.
But everything was so watered down, I was saying to myself "Oh, wait, so she did kill those girls? Oh. Ho hum, alright."
Perhaps Johns just didn't have the heart to write a bloody, violent book. Or perhaps she really thought that weakening such shocking events into a few "close-my-eyes-and-get-it-over-with" paragraphs was the best way to go about things.

What disappointed me the very most about The Countess was how utterly un-interesting it was. I couldn't bring myself to care about any of what was going on. Another reviewer said something along the lines of "for such an interesting story, my does the author make it boring!" And I think that that is the best way to put it.

This book had potential, but none of it was lived up to.