The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum, Cynthia Ward (Aqueduct Press 978-1-61976-154-4, $12.00, 128pp, tp) October 2018.
This story follows on from the events of The Adventure of the Incognita Countess, in which Lucy Harker, half-vampire (dhampir) daughter of Mina Harker and Dracula and current agent for the British secret service, encountered the vampire Carmilla (famed in history, now reformed from murder and known as Clarimal) and found a deep attraction growing between them amid intrigue and giant cruise liners. Lucy and Clarimal have been lovers for some time now, though the beginning of the Great War has sent them in separate directions as spies for the British crown.
In The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum, Lucy is assigned as a bodyguard for Winston Churchill, who has taken a commission as a Lt-Colonel at the Western Front after the disaster of Gallipoli. Churchill was one of Britain’s experts on Martian weapons after the alien invasion in the first years of the century, and Lucy’s stepfather/boss, Mycroft Holmes (“M”) believes he’s at risk of abduction by German wolfmen under the direction of top German science hero/mad scientist Dr. Krüger.
When Churchill is abducted and Lucy left for dead, she’s surprised to wake up to find Clarimal tending to her. Together, they race across the front lines to try to find Churchill and rescue him before Dr. Krüger can use mind control technology to get Churchill to spill all of Britain’s most secret secrets.
But seeing Lucy close to death has affected Clarimal in ways that Lucy doesn’t realise until Clarimal decides to end their relationship, citing her concern for Lucy’s immortal soul. (Because in the middle of a dangerous mission is the perfect time for a several-hundred-years-old vampire to break up with her younger lover over the conviction that she’s going to get said younger lover damned. I might have started judging Clarimal quite a bit at that point.) Lucy finds dealing with her feelings a little difficult – especially when she, Clarimal, and the pre-War friends she’s been using for help in German territory are all kidnapped by Dr. Krüger’s minions. Clarimal is to join the ranks of the mind-controlled; Lucy is to be fed to a dinosaur. Explosive action ramps up to an utterly gonzo climax.
Lucy and Clarimal manage to resolve some of their differences, too.
“Gonzo” is probably the best word for the novella as a whole. It draws on the pulp adventure tradition of the late 19th and early 20th century: the Boys’ Own style of capital-A adventure given more feminist and queerer form. I recognise Ward’s borrowings from H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle, among the obvious (Carmilla and Dracula, naturally), but I’m sure I’ve missed nearly as many more. (Verne? H. Rider Haggard?) Ward employs a gloriously kitchen-sink approach to influences and cool shit, and Lucy’s matter-of-fact, professional voice makes for compelling reading.
Lucy is, unfortunately, a British imperial chauvinist. Though the narrative may call her on this, she remains fairly and annoyingly obtuse about just how hypocritical she is when it comes to her nation and its civilising benefits to, for example, India. (As an Irish person, I have to sigh heavily in England’s direction.) And Ward is far kinder to Churchill than I could ever bring myself to be. Despite a handful of flaws, The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum is a very fun read. I really hope Ward has the opportunity to write more in this vein.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the October 2018 issue of Locus.
While you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.