In Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula, beautiful young Lucy Westenra was staked and buried after being turned into a vampire. Emma Cornwall’s Incarnation picks it up from there. Lucy (here called Lucy Weston) awakens in the grave and claws her way back to the surface, where she makes her way to London and embarks on a search for the mysterious creature who transformed her.
While Incarnation uses events from Dracula as a jumping-off point, perhaps the best way to fully appreciate Incarnation is to let go of Dracula as much as possible. There’s little left of the original to cling to, and if you go in expecting merely a different perspective on the same tale, you’re likely to be disappointed. In Cornwall’s version, Bram Stoker (who appears as a character) wrote almost everything in his novel as a deliberate cover-up. The Transylvanian count is a misdirection; the vampire who turned Lucy bears little resemblance to him. There’s no Mina; no Jonathan. Lucy had a suitor before her transformation, but he’s not any of the three we’re familiar with. It’s simply a completely different story, and you’ll enjoy it more if you go in expecting that. Think of Incarnation less as a sequel to Dracula and more as the beginning of an urban fantasy series that happens to be set in Victorian London.
(At least I hope it will be a series. I can find no information on a sequel, but Incarnation reads like the start of a series rather than as a standalone. There’s a lot more story to be told here.)
Cornwall packs a ton of awesome ideas into this novel. There are vampires, of course. There’s an element of Arthurian legend. The Golden Dawn. Werewolves. Slayers. Steampunk. A little bit of dystopia, even — this isn’t quite our Victorian London, and there’s some creepy surveillance going on. And my favorite aspect of Incarnation: its portrayal of London as a palimpsest, with layers upon layers of history, and a warren of buried streets and rivers running beneath the city. Cornwall doesn’t explore all of these ideas to the fullest, but gives us enough to intrigue, and there’s plenty of room for future plots if she continues writing in this universe.
Lucy can sometimes be a hard character to get a handle on, as she wavers between cold pragmatism and a more emotional side. However, I think this is done intentionally to illustrate a duality in her nature that is explained later. In any case she’s a character readers will root for in her determination to survive, starting with the gripping opening scene.
In a few places, Cornwall does a little too much telling and too little showing. There are some scenes — even scenes with the potential for pulse-pounding action — that read almost as summaries of themselves.
Overall, Incarnation doesn’t quite live up to the huge potential inherent in its steampunk-Dracula-sequel premise. It is enjoyable, however, and succeeds in whetting the appetite for more novels starring Lucy and set in Cornwall’s world.