Filler content with historical vampires

This review was posted to the old TTA Press website on 26 June 2007:-

STATES OF GRACE by CHELSEA QUINN YARBRO
Tor hardback, 332pp, $25.95

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro is a woman writer with a penchant for bloodsuckers in the traditional vein, her work adhering closely to the aristocratic prototype of this subgenre. Like Bram Stoker she took a minor historical character and vampirised him, in this case the Count Saint-Germain, a shadowy figure connected with the court of Louis XV and rumoured to be a 2000 year old immortal. Yarbro introduced the character in her 1978 novel Hotel Transylvania, and since then has written a whole slew of books recording Saint-Germain’s adventures back into pre-history and forward to the present day.

The latest, number twenty something or other in the series, States of Grace is set against the backdrop of the Reformation, with Europe gripped by religious fervour and persecution of dissenters, and our hero taking on the dangerous role of publisher. In Venice Saint-Germain is challenged by an enemy who embezzles his fortune and threatens his female protégé, while in the Hapsburg ruled Low Countries he faces legal charges trumped up by the Spanish authorities, who wish to close his press.

No denying this is a well written book, with attention to detail and subtle use of dialogue, while Yarbro’s trademark device of using correspondence to further the story is put to good use. The period in which it is set is brought to compelling life, with a wealth of facts piled on to add verisimilitude and Yarbro showing a genuine appreciation of the issues involved and real empathy for the times.

And yet for all of that I wasn’t especially taken with this book. To me the whole exercise seemed pointless except as a way for the author to show off her research. He walks around with native soil in the soles of his shoes, but otherwise Saint-Germain’s vampirism is largely a side issue, mentioned mostly in passing and as the reason behind his vast knowledge and well travelled status, and finally as the McGuffin for a short climactic confrontation with a thug who has guessed his secret, but really all of this could have been made to work without any hint of bloodsucking. The main plot, involving a Venetian official working against him, is wholly contrived, with the actions of Saint-Germain’s enemy never satisfactorily explained, to all appearances rooted in nothing more than malice while everything else about the character suggests that he is anything but as simple as this would seem to imply. Elsewhere Yarbro has the annoying habit of setting up interesting scenes which are never satisfactorily resolved, the reader left to infer what has happened from later events, while the continual blathering about how generous and noble Saint-Germain is becomes tiresome (it’s easy to be generous when you’re an alchemist who can create his own gold, a ploy that somewhat defuses the financial threats faced by the vampire). The vampire as philanthropist is a novel slant, but the author overplays her hand to the point where I was actually hoping for something nasty to happen to this insufferable goody two-shoes (I know, I’m a bad person, but what can you do?).

The book seemed laboured, making me wonder if Yarbro’s heart is really in it anymore (perhaps she’d be happier writing historic fiction without a vampire strung round her neck like an albatross), and I can only recommend States of Grace to Saint-Germain/Yarbro completists, or those with a consuming interest in the Reformation.

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