Not having read Dracula, I wasnít sure whether I would completely understand Barbara Hamblyís latest paperback, Renfield: Slave of Dracula. The conceit is that it takes place during the original novel, where Renfield (and spoiler alert, if youíre just dying to read a book thatís over 100 years old and donít want it to be spoiled) is killed. Hambly comes up with a story where Renfield survives in a rather vampiric way, and this is his story. Thankfully, Hambly provides all the information needed to make this an enjoyable novel, so much so that being familiar with the original just enhances the experience rather than being a requirement.
Locked up in an asylum, Renfield can feel his master coming to England from Transylvania even as he writes letters to his wife and continues his experiments in living energy by feeding and consuming spiders, flies, birds, etc. As Dracula is coming to set up a new abode and harem, his wives arenít exactly happy, and they find Renfield before Dracula bothers. Thus, when Dracula kills him, as in the original, heís still alive (sort of) to tell the tale. Ordered to hunt the vampire hunters who are on a quest to rid the world of Dracula, Renfield complies, in a mission that takes him from his beloved England and his wife to the depths of Castle Dracula and what could be a new (un)life for him - or it could result in his destruction at the hands of those same hunters.
The original Dracula is an epistolary novel, told in various journal entries and letters. Renfield is told along the same lines, except that there are passages told in the third person as well. Hambly also manages to capture the basic Bram Stoker style, and the book feels like it could have been written by the master himself. That can be a plus or minus, depending on your opinion of that style. I did find it a bit dry, and I was disappointed that it wasnít as interesting as it could have been. The novels back then were quite talky, and this one is pretty much the same. Thankfully, Hamblyís prose is good enough that I didnít mind it too much.
Hambly delves deeply into the head of what I assume is a minor character in the original novel, fleshing him out, giving him a family and a dark secret. Renfield drives the narrative, even as heís waiting for something to happen. Heís definitely insane, but hidden beneath that is a thin shred of decency thatís mainly brought out by Nomie, one of Draculaís wives who befriends him after they turn him into one of them. This also comes out in his letters to his dear wife, though this is greatly affected by what we find out about him later.
The other main viewpoint character is Renfieldís psychiatrist, Dr. John Seward. Hambly canít do as much with him as heís a little more of a main character in the original novel, but she manages to give him some good character pieces as well. Heís very interested in Lucy Wenestra, the woman who eventually sparks the Dracula manhunt after events in the original novel, on which Hambly elaborates in Renfield. As the story goes on, we see less and less of him as his role grows in the main storyline. Thatís okay, though, as Renfield himself takes on an even greater importance.
We only see snatches of the other characters, enough to get an idea of what they are like but not much more than that. We learn a lot about Nomie through her interaction with Renfield, but we donít see much of the other two wives except to establish that one of them is arrogant and sadistic and the other one is more monstrous than anything else. The same is true of Van Helsing, Jonathan and Mina Harker, and the other vampire hunters, who we see mainly through Sewardís eyes and Renfieldís observations when theyíre all racing to Transylvania. Perhaps this is because they are so well-characterized in Stokerís book? I donít know; perhaps readers of the original will have less of a problem with this than I did.
As I was reading through Renfield, I was having trouble with how little Renfield was actually affecting the main plot of the book. Then I realized that this book was not telling the same story from a different angle but was telling the story of how Renfield dealt with everything that was happening - why he was insane, his interaction and growing friendship with Nomie as well as his feelings for his wife and young daughter, and how everything affected him. The ending seems a bit anticlimactic until you realize what the point of the story is.
Barbara Hambly shows once more why she is one of my favorite authors with Renfield. Yes, itís not the most interesting of books unless you enjoyed Stokerís novel, but Hambly is always willing to try new things. She has quite a few straightforward fantasy books to her credit, but then she also has three Star Trek books, the Benjamin January historical mysteries, and now this one. Sheís able to adapt her style as well; there is little of the verbose description that I normally love about her books. I think it was the right decision, however, as it definitely would not have fit here.
The book certainly is not a masterpiece and will never be high on my list of favorite Hambly books, but the prose and interesting method of storytelling will keep your attention long enough to finish, and enjoy, the book. What more can you ask?