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The Countess    by Rebecca Johns order for
by Rebecca Johns
Order:  USA  Can
Crown, 2010 (2010)
Hardcover, e-Book
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In The Countess, Rebecca Johns tells the dark story of Hungary's infamous Blood Countess in that aristocrat's own words, through a long letter to her son as Countess Erzsébet Báthory is walled up inside her castle tower by masons, to end her life solitary and in the dark in 1614.

Readers share Erzsébet's childhood as the eldest daughter of a noble Hungarian family, rich in lands and with strong ties to the ruling houses of Poland and Transylvania. Her well educated mother (who is on her third marriage) is a 'dedicated wife'. She advises her daughter on how to win and hold a husband's interest. Erzsébet's father dies suddenly when she is only eleven and soon afterwards she is sent to join the household of Orsolya Kanizsay, mother of her betrothed, Ferenc Nadasdy.

Ferenc takes his time coming home to meet Erzsébet. When he does, and even after they are married, he shows little interest in her. That is, until the day she punishes a servant in an imaginatively cruel fashion. Ferenc approves and offers to share some of the punishment techniques he has learned on the battlefield. He's clearly a sadist who encourages the same tendencies in his child wife. Now he decides to love her and they have children together, though two are lost to the plague.

Life continues for Erzsébet in this fashion until Ferenc's untimely death leaves her without protection, the vast lands under her control a temptation to fellow nobles, especially to her husband's best friend (her own ex-lover). How much does that influence what follows? It has to be a factor, but the increasing numbers of female servants who die or go missing from the Countess's household certainly give her enemies ammunition for her downfall.

Knowing the lady's official history, we read alert for any seeds of the kind of madness that might have led to the serial slaughter of female servants for which the Countess has become known. As a child, she revels in the cruel execution of a gypsy, whom she tells 'You suffer too little.' Over time her punishments become gradually more severe and are triggered by smaller and smaller infractions.

Yet, writing her story from Erzsébet's point of view, Rebecca Johns subtly and masterfully pulls readers into her lead's perspective, making Erzsébet's reign of terror (in which she murdered at least thirty-five women) feel almost normal and justified. If you enjoy historical horror, you need look no further than The Countess, a disturbing novel based on the first known female serial killer in history.

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