In Brian James Gage’s gothic fantasy The Sleepwalker, a sickly child’s fate may result in the unleashing of vampires.
In the early 1800s, a pair of escaped convicts stumbles across an unusual sight: a woman who’s chained beneath the surface of a lake in the Carpathian Mountains. The woman turns out to be Alexandra, the Empress of Russia, who made a recent transition into the realm of the undead. Alexandra gives birth to a child who’s half vampire and half human, a child who’s destined to give rise to an age of vampires.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the royal family, Grigori Rasputin concocts a plan to infiltrate the family and ensure that the prophecy comes to pass. Everything hangs in the balance as a small cabal of hunters attempts to stop Rasputin and the ritual that will unleash an ancient evil on the world and bring about the downfall of humanity.
Though it begins by exploring what happened to Alexandra and why her child is ill, this initial mystery gives way to an unexpected, broader vampire story with the discovery of a vicious serial killer who’s making their way across Europe. A coroner connects the dots between the killings and local legends about the Bloodchild prophecy, after which the novel shifts into overdrive. Bodies stack up; Rasputin appears, and the focus rocks back and forth between him and others’ efforts to stop him.
From the first scene featuring Alexandra under the surface of the lake, a deep, foreboding Gothic atmosphere develops. Descriptions of decrepit forests brim with unspeakable horrors. A layer of history is established over the supernatural elements, injecting realism into the story. Its characters are drawn from real life, including Emperor Nicholas; they become enveloped in the vampiric lore.
While most characters have a historical counterpoint, an unlikely and original vampire hunter, Denis, commands much attention. He’s survived a vampire attack; he’s lost both an arm and leg to his quest to stop a prophecy regarding the apocalypse. Denis invents and masters vampire-slaying gadgets, their era-appropriate technology involving herbs and woods native to his region. Felix, a prince who’s framed for murder by Rasputin and who’s recruited into a vampire hunting organization, is another creative addition.
Rasputin’s henchman is a bumbling, loyal follower who’s eager to join the ranks of the undead. His personality is developed through his dialogue; he adopts a simpering tone and stumbles through his words. Other characters speak in similarly distinctive manners; Rasputin’s speech is clipped and precise, and become more so when he’s enraged. Excerpts from vampire bibles and diaries help to move the story along at a compelling pace.
The Sleepwalker is a fascinating urban fantasy whose elements are drawn from history.