"Empire of Fear" defies the expectations created by the sub-title ("An epic vampire novel") and its ominous cover art . . . the book seems to promise a titanic, action-packed battle between humans and vampires, but takes a decidedly different, yet interesting tack.
Brian Stableford's novel opens conventionally, even if operating under a wonderfully unique premise. The world is ruled by vampires -- Attila the Hun and Charlamagne are both vampires who have conquered Western Europe, and their henchmen, including Richard Lionheart, Vlad the Impaler (no great shock, there), and even Pope Alexander are also vampires. Africa is also conquered by vampires, although the Muslims have been resisting the vampiric hordes. The novel's first chapter, set in London, shows the world in uneasy balance, with the vampire aristocracy ruling over a generally pacified yet often unruly human population.
That is, until scientist, mechanician, and handsomest man in England, Edmund Cordery, strikes a blow for humans in a devious, vicious manner. His son, Noell, takes up the standard, but instead of leading a mighty army, Noell gets involved in a journey of scientific discovery into the causes of vampirism. Using what may be the world's first microscope, Noell spends much of the book peering through its lenses and speculating on scientific theory.
Surprisingly, for a book that has vampires, pirates, seiges, and bizarre religious rites, the book is rather flat. Stableford is clearly more interested in the ideas presented by vampirism than with writing a hair-raising Gothic horror novel or a gripping page-turner, and his writing cannot be said to "crackle" or "leap from the page" -- even his dueling scenes are written in an expository, rote prose. Indeed, the largest section of the book is focused on Noell's time in Africa, where he and his comrades have journeyed to find the legendary birthplace of vampirism. This section is rather tedious, if only because the characters are so exhausted, diseased, and despairing about their circumstances.
Ultimately, the final section of the book is set in the modern age, and we meet one of the characters from earlier in the book. Stableford concludes his novel with a very touching, very thoughtful scene involving a vampire and a crippled boy with an unusual link to one of Stableford's heroes.
If you're looking for an eerie vampire thriller, pick up King's "'Salem's Lot," or some other novel. "Empire of Fear" is not your standard beach fare or for staying up late at night to get a good dose of the heeby-jeebies . . . it is a careful, well-researched work regarding the quest for knowledge and a rumination on mortality.