Those of us familiar with Bram Stoker’s Dracula know that the ship which transported Count Dracula arrived utterly empty except for the dead captain chained to the helm, with nobody knowing that happened to the rest of the crew….that is, until now.
Initially published in 1998, The Route of Ice and Salt is a reimagining of Dracula’s voyage from Transylvania to England on The Demeter. It is narrated by the captain (we never do learn his name), who is assigned to transport fifty crates filled with Transylvanian soil from Varna to Whitby.
We learn right off the bat that the captain isn’t what one pictures as a typical captain of this time period. For one thing, he is gay, and the first part of the novel centers heavily on the captain’s sexuality. We enter into his head as he fantasizes and dreams about having sex with his crew — hungering and yearning for the touch of another man. It was heartbreaking to see how the captain yearned for connection with others but dared not get close to anyone lest they discover his horrible secret.
But our captain also suffers from internalized guilt and internalized homophobia, as it’s slowly revealed that his lover was murdered in a homophobic act of violence by a mob. Because of this, the Captain experiences shame at what he is but, surprisingly, comes to accept himself more and more as the novel progresses. It becomes clear to him that he is not the monster here, but instead, it is that which is causing the disappearance of his men. So what we have here, then, is a story consisting of multiple layers; there is so much more to it than merely a gay captain transporting 50 crates of soil to England.
Now I will say that there’s not much of a plot to this story, and anyone familiar with Bram Stoker’s classic knows how it turns out. There is also minimal dialog and not a whole lot of action. What we do have, however, is a character-driven novel told mostly through internal monologue that’s ultimately about hunger and desire, about inner monsters vs. real-life monsters, about heroes and villains, about suppressing your true self, about how dangerous homophobia can be (both internalized and external) and about redemption.
I enjoyed how the vampire stalking the crew paralleled the captain’s predatory (according to him) desires and thoughts. But through the captain’s revelations, the reader is reminded that being gay and loving others is not what is monstrous, but rather it is that which preys upon innocents where we find the true villains/monsters. I did enjoy the captain’s character arc as he came to some amazing realizations about himself, his lover’s horrific murder, and society in general.
This novel is also quite dense, though it is beautifully written. The prose is lyrical, flowery, and poetic with phenomenal descriptions and meticulously crafted sentences, and I found it a joy to read. I loved the gothic feel and atmosphere to this story, which the author really pulled off swimmingly. That being said, there are some genuinely creepy scenes in the book, especially those involving rats, distressing dreams, the crew’s unexplainable fear, and, of course, a vampire slowly taking over the ship.
Though indeed disturbing, dark, and unsettling, this tension-filled book was also incredibly rewarding to read with its compelling main character, beautiful prose, and fascinating storyline. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
A huge thank you to Netgalley for providing me with an ARC of this book for review purposes.