Dark Scribe Reviews
Reviews of Dark Fiction and Non-Fiction Books, Short Fiction, and Magazines
Medallion Press / March 2016
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno
Gregory Lamberson likes horror movies. No, I mean, he really likes horror movies.
It’s no coincidence then that the award-winning director of cult-favorite films like Slime City and Killer Rack wears his cinematic B-movie influences proudly in is latest novel, Black Creek.
For the residents populating Lamberson’s version of Black Creek Village – the real-life Niagara Falls neighborhood that sits atop the infamous Love Canal, in which 22,000 barrels of toxic waste were dumped in the late 1970’s causing widespread health problems and population displacement – there is less love in the air this Valentine’s Day than there is snow and blood. Lots of snow, lots of blood.
As a winter storm of epic proportion bears down upon them, cutting them off from the rest of the world, those former denizens of Love Canal who never left and instead descended underground where they continued to live – and, worse, breed – for the last forty years amidst all that toxic slime emerge. As anyone who’s ever read Jack Ketchum or Richard Laymon know, these folks generally come out of hiding very cranky – and ravenous.
Just as he demonstrated an affinity for the slasher film formula in his Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel Johnny Gruesome, Lamberson shows that he knows his way around a creature feature with equal aplomb. He adeptly builds tension by using shorter passages to introduce a sizable cast of characters as they go about the mundane tasks of preparing for a winter storm. As the storm approaches and then hits with a wallop, he intercuts between his various literary set pieces, with enough foreshadowing to leave the reader braced and prepared for the underground creatures to strike – yet never quite knowing where or when. That possibility of being struck and knocked off-balance at any moment is half the enjoyment of Black Creek and a testament to Lamberson’s skill as an able storyteller.
Although Black Creek is an obvious environmental cautionary tale, Lamberson wisely sidesteps the weighty thematic pontifications that often bog novels like this down. Instead, he opts for an old-school, Laymon-light vibe here, reminiscent of the 80’s mass market horror novel boom during which excess ruled. He competently builds his narrative to an all-out assault on his cast of (mostly likeable) characters like the literary equivalent of a Neil Marshall or Joe Dante, with action, blood and guts, and a few surprising kills that might have you shaking your fist at the author in anger.
Lazy reviewers might be tempted to classify Black Creek as a literary retread of Wes Craven’s seminal The Hills Have Eyes, but aside from the environmental effects and inbreeding between their antagonists, the comparison stops there. In The Hills Have Eyes, there is a key element of intrusion, as the hapless Carter family crash lands in the antagonist tribe’s turf. The cannibals attack as a means of both survival and self-protection – a safeguarding of their home, their way of life, the very secret of their existence. In Black Creek, Lamberson subverts this idea of intrusion into invasion. The characters are set upon while going about the normal course of daily business. There is no precipitating event – at least not one triggered by the victims. Conceivably, the long-lost denizens of Love Canal have existed without attacking humans for nearly four decades so their onslaught carries with it a strong element of revenge, taking from those who live above what was once taken from them. The victims here are symbolic.
In Craven’s film, the cannibalistic carnage is opportunistic in nature, both a reaction and result of random circumstance – strangers stumbling into someone else’s realm. In Lamberson’s novel, the action is a deliberate and pre-meditated act of misguided vengeance.
Readers are well advised to grab their popcorn for this one because Black Creek reads like a Saturday matinee, with its propulsive plot, high body count, and just the right amount of pathos to keep readers invested in the plight of its characters. Like Laymon’s The Woods Are Dark and Ketchum’s Off Season, Black Creek explores the inner savage in the everyday man with a ferociously fun – yet genuinely frightening – creature feature mentality. Best read on a snowy night.
Purchase Black Creek by Gregory Lamberson.
47North / October 2014
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno
The first shocking moment in Christopher Rice’s latest supernatural thriller comes when you pick up the book itself. Weighing in at a mere 214 pages, The Vines is a surprisingly slim novel. Fortunately, good things often come in small packages. Despite its slender outer spine, The Vines packs a satisfying horror punch, proving the old adage that less is often more. While The Vines may be lean, its storytelling is mean.
Set in the author’s native New Orleans – a setting he’s revisited in several of his works – the novel opens on Spring House, a former plantation that’s the lavish backdrop to a birthday soirée for its current proprietress, an heiress named Caitlin Chaisson. Like all good ghost stories, the restored plantation house – built over the grounds of former slave quarters – drips with atmosphere and a strong sense of pre-Civil War era history.
When Caitlin catches her unfaithful husband with his hands in the proverbial cookie jar – here a shrewd gold-digger named Jane Percival – her ensuing anger and suicidal despair reawaken the vengeful spirit of an African American slave named Virginie Lacroix. Her cheating husband disappears; his mistress loses her mind, and Caitlin slips down the rabbit hole.
Nova Thomas, the antagonistic daughter of the plantation’s longtime groundskeeper, has long held her own suspicions about Spring House’s tainted history. Enlisting the help of Caitlin’s estranged friend, Blake Henderson – who carries his own complicated, emotional baggage over the loss of his high school sweetheart in a brutal, homophobic attack – Nova sets out to uncover the secrets of Spring House and the serpentine vines that serve as conduit for LaCroix’s revengeful, restless spirit. As she notes earlier, we’re "so busy looking for ghosts in the attic, we never think to look in the ground."
Tracing the plantation’s long and poisoned history, the pair slowly uncovers the truth about LaCroix, her ability to commune with and command the earth beneath her, and her dealings with Spring House’s onetime master, Felix Delachaise, whose betrayal of a promise made unleashed a wrath upon Spring House and now seemingly serves Caitlin (and later Blake) in retaliating against her enemies. Rice cleverly employs this idea of supernatural vigilantism as a device to differentiate the blurry line that exists between the concepts of vengeance and justice, which serves as the novel’s overarching theme.
Historical oppression – like the novel’s titular botanical appendages – has deep roots in the South and figures prominently into the story. Nova begrudges what she sees as her father’s codependent servitude to white people and resents the fact that he’s chosen to live and work on a sugarcane plantation built on the blood of slaves. In the hands of a lesser writer, the character has all the trappings of the “angry black female” stereotype, but Rice impressively explores the weightier themes of race relations and gender in a deceptively subtle layer of sociocultural subtext. Likewise, there are thematic nods to classism and privilege – none of which ever feel heavy-handed or forced – that lend some gravitas to an otherwise straight-forward horror story.
As with last year’s The Heavens Rise, Rice puts his mastery of the thriller genre to excellent use in this second foray into speculative fiction. He structures the novel with the plot intricacies of earlier works like The Snow Garden and Light Before Day, seamlessly weaving in each character’s backstory and then intersecting them in effortless cohesion. With The Vines, he manages to pull off that same feat within a compressed narrative timeframe that lends to the lean, breakneck pacing and yet somehow never detracts from either character development or the heftier themes discussed earlier. He even manages a somewhat grandiose, overstuffed third act, complete with plantation-destroying plants, a sleazy roadside motel besieged by a swarm of killer bugs, and a melodramatic showdown between the past and the present.
The Vines further establishes Christopher Rice as a master storyteller, one whose horror chops continue to take root and blossom.
Purchase The Vines by Christopher Rice.
Ecco / May 2014
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno
The idea that we have nothing to fear but fear itself – which Franklin D. Roosevelt famously paraphrased in his inaugural Presidential address, borrowing from the line "Nothing is terrible except fear itself" from an essay by Sir Francis Bacon – has been a subconscious thematic mainstay in horror fiction. First-time novelist Josh Malerman builds on this idea of terrors unseen and posits that the imagination may be the most powerful horror of all in his unsettling debut novel, Bird Box.
In a reverent wink to Lovecraft, the apocalypse arrives courtesy of an insanity pandemic that causes the world’s denizens to go stark raving mad and suicidal – a mass descent into personal madness caused by catching sight of something unfathomable that the human mind can neither comprehend nor process. To survive, society turns inward – physically and metaphorically – by retreating indoors, covering windows with blankets and never opening doors without blindfolds.
Bird Box opens masterfully with the introduction of Malorie – the novel’s protagonist – as she prepares for a rowboat trip under the protective cover of what she believes to be a thick fog blanketing the waterway she must traverse to some unknown, unconfirmed endpoint promising safety. The twenty-mile journey downriver – blindfolded – seems all but guaranteed death for her and the pair of unnamed four-year-olds she’s parent to at the novel’s outset.
Alternating between Malorie’s treacherous trip downriver are the events leading up to it – from learning of an unplanned pregnancy amidst the first reports of global calamity to her seeking refuge with a band of fellow survivors inside a suburban home and adapting to this new apocalyptic reality with her housemates. Malerman uses Malorie’s pregnancy as a countdown device to the events that unfold within the house and – in a mastery of subtle foreshadowing evident from the opening chapter – how Malorie comes to be alone with two children.
Even in these alternating chapters where the group dynamics of the reluctant refugees might feel familiar, Malerman successfully layers the more customary elements of the societal microcosm forced together by circumstance – leadership struggles, increasing paranoia, differences of opinion over which new arrivals to let in or not, collective concerns over dwindling food reserves, debates over strategies to better their situation – with fresh touches specific to his story (such as learning to travel outside the safety of their house and perform essential outdoor tasks while blindfolded).
Malerman keenly uses the sensory deprivation his characters must endure to heighten the reader’s own sensory experience. He makes the most of his character’s forced blindness, expertly using descriptions of sound and touch to turn a straightforward run to the water well or rowboat excursion into nerve-wracking sequences that make the reader’s blood run cold. This at times unbearable sensory delirium he subjects his characters to disorientate the reader enough to wonder whether it’s hysterical fear brought on by the power of suggestion or nameless monsters lurking within arm’s length that is the actual threat which will ultimately do the novel’s characters in.
Malorie is a near-perfect exercise in character development and execution. Malerman deftly draws her as a mother compelled into her role as a reluctant drill sergeant who relentlessly trains her children over the course of four years to hear with an almost preternatural acuity. In the hands of a lesser writer, Malorie could come off as a hopelessly bleak heroine, a harsh, emotionless parent hell-bent on teaching her children to confront the reality of an unknown “other” well beyond their developing minds’ comprehension without being able to see it. But Malerman nimbly balances the elements of cheerless inevitability that bears down on his protagonist and the flickering hope that powers her forward despite the seeming futility of her immediate situation and the bleakness of the larger dystopian world around her.
Bird Box reads like a master class in fear and suspense, easily belying its debut novel status and elevating it well beyond its novice pedigree. Malerman adroitly creates tension by stretching moments of terror into anticipatory swells – like a roller coaster that climbs and climbs interminably. He further ratchets up the reader’s overall feeling of unsteadiness by skillfully withholding information, preferring to keep almost every external threat to the characters – from the psyche-shattering creatures they imagine all around them to the actual cause of the mass psychosis that’s rendered the world a global ghost town – ever present but just out of focus enough to be abstract. Malerman uses his characters’ necessary sightlessness to create a literary blindfold that short-circuits the reader’s own processing mechanism that allows them to see through the author’s words. The more he withholds this sense of sight – which runs counter to the human instinct to look even when we’re told not to – he cleverly engages the reader’s own sense of imagination, creating a more experiential read.
Chilling and mercilessly paced, Bird Box is easily this year’s most notable speculative fiction debut. Imbued with an almost elegiac gloom throughout that tints its narrative palette gray, Bird Box drips with an ever-present sense of expectation and dread. Malerman immerses the reader into his dystopian world by blinding them alongside his characters, ultimately heightening the horror and leaving the reader desperate to open their eyes despite the potential consequences of doing so.
Purchase Bird Box by Josh Malerman.
Thomas Dunne Books / July 2014
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno
For readers, half the enjoyment derived from today’s horror is in the never-ending quest to find the next malevolent source of what’s going to do us in; for writers, it’s the challenge. In an admittedly jaded age when we’ve all been there and read that, the focus has imperceptivity shifted from pure originality in concept to creative reinvention. Supernatural threats in their myriad forms, serial killers with (literal) axes to grind, and flesh-feasting zombies have long been staples in the modern horror author’s arsenal – but readers quickly tire of uninspired rehashes. Even in the perennial recycle bin of ideas, readers want to find gems of imagination and ingenuity.
A.J. Colucci doesn’t so much invent as she reinvents by dipping back into an older horror mainstay: the eco-horror subgenre. It’s territory she’s explored previously in her debut novel, The Colony, and one with a rich history in horror literature that includes The Rats by the late James Herbert (1974), Killer Crabs by Guy N. Smith (1978), The Portent by Marilyn Harris (1980), and – more recently – The Ruins by Scott Smith (2006) and Fragment by Warren Fahy (2009). In Seeders, the New Jersey native’s sophomore effort, Colucci calls to mind films like The Day of the Triffids and The Ruins with a thoroughly engrossing tale of botanical terror. Imagine M. Night Shyamalan’s atrociously misguided The Happening done right.
Upon the death of her botanist father, Isabelle Maguire travels to a remote Canadian island with her two young sons and a troubled teenage girl under her supervision for the reading of her late father’s will. Along for the ride to Sparrow Island are two other heirs to his estate: Dr. Jules Beecher, a plant neurobiologist and former protégé of the late scientist, and Ginny Shufflebottom, an elderly curmudgeon who was the deceased’s paramour and island companion for the last decade. When the reading of the will is dispensed with, it’s clear the three beneficiaries have separate agendas: One wants to re-create the late scientist’s botanical experiments, one wants to find a hidden diamond bequeathed to her amidst a riddle, and one wants to uncover the truth behind her father’s death. Two of these concurrent story arcs eventually thread their way to a satisfying conclusion; while the third feels tacked on to pad the body count.
Seeders is a decidedly ambitious horror/science fiction hybrid that reads like a Crichton-esque eco-thriller adorned with English cozy accoutrement. There’s a decidedly Agatha Christie vibe that resonates throughout, but instead of bodies piling up in the library, they’re scattered everywhere across Colucci’s fictional, fungus-infested island. And instead of a butler or mistress holding a smoking gun, it’s misunderstood plants doing everybody in with hallucinogenic, mind-controlling mold spores. Hell, there’s even a literary wink to Christie’s beloved red herring device, here in the form of homemade biscuits and a sunken wooden box.
Colucci wisely grounds the novel’s central concept – plant communication with humans – in some accessible real-life scientific theory. It’s this scientific realism that helps the reader excuse the author her convenient genre contrivances – the isolated island setting, the expedient weather event, the self-serving diaries of the deceased mad scientist, a solitary source of communication with the mainland that’s waylaid early on. Even when the reader’s attention is pulled from Colucci’s fast-moving narrative by the occasional heavy-handed environmental sermonizing or the gawky teen love story wedged in here, it’s easy to forgive the author.
Less forgivable is the extraneous character of Ginny Shufflebottom. From the incongruous whimsicality of the character’s surname to her lack of narrative purpose, the elderly Brit seems to be played for either comedic effect or a not-so-subtle homage to Christie’s Miss Marple that – on both counts, unfortunately – miss the mark. As annoying as when she’s on the canvas, it’s even more irritating when she disappears for what feels like chapters at a time. She’s ultimately a character that feels inexplicably appended without function to the cast or larger story.
Fortunately for Colucci – and her readers – these shortcomings don’t eclipse the nail-biting tension generated in this clever cautionary fable in which human egotism is blindsided by ecological rebellion. Horror aficionados will bask in the gory set pieces while devotees of the thriller format will find much to appreciate in Colucci’s breakneck pacing.
With Seeders, A.J. Colucci reaches into the nature-run-amok arena to craft an imaginative, breathlessly-plotted genre mash-up that thrills, chills, and may just have you taking a kinder, gentler approach with your own houseplants.
Purchase Seeders by A.J. Colucci.
JournalStone / January 2014
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno
Lady Diana Furnaval, Lisa Morton’s thoroughly engaging heroine at the center of this first book in a planned trilogy, had her humble beginnings in short fiction. She first appeared in “Diana and the Goong-Si”, Morton’s contribution to Midnight Walk, an anthology she also ably helmed as editor back in 2009. Here’s what this writer had to say about his first meeting with Lady Furnaval in his review of the anthology:
“…an exquisitely detailed story of a British noblewoman who travels to China in 1880 in search of her missing husband. Morton crafts a mesmerizing cross-genre tale that blends ancient Chinese culture with the undead and vampirism within an authentic historical context of the late 19th-century opium-for-tea trading industry between Britain and China. Infused with great humanity, ‘Diana and the Goong-Si’ possesses the delicate period sensibilities of The Painted Veil and the hair-raising psychic vampirism elements of One Dark Night.”
Indeed, that introduction to m’lady Furnaval left my literary taste buds watering for more. Morton – perhaps taking the concept of leaving readers wanting more a little too far during the ensuing five-year wait – finally rewards readers with the first of three full-length Lady Diana horror adventures.
Netherworld is a non-stop theme park ride, every bit as kitschy as it is thrilling. Morton writes with a genuine cinematic flair, her background as a screenwriter coming in handy as she plots adventure after adventure for her Victorian-era leading lady. Remaining true to Furnaval’s short fiction roots, Morton keeps the essential backstory intact while expanding on it: Furnaval is indeed a young widow who –having reason to believe her presumed-dead husband is trapped between worldly dimensions – travels from England to India to the Far East of the Orient to America’s burgeoning West on a mission to close supernatural portals and fend off an impending demonic apocalypse. Along for the ride are Lady Diana’s trusted sidekicks – a young Chinese sailor named Yi-kin and a gray tabby with extrasensory prowess named Mina.
As Lady Diana and company make their way (literally) across the globe, they run afoul of myriad monsters and assorted spooky spine-tinglers. All manner of which – from trapped spirits and bloodthirsty vampires to reptilian underground dwellers and a malevolent Hindu goddess – are along for what feels like a deliriously demented ride through an adult version of Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction. That Morton can also effortlessly weave bits of social commentary into the narrative (classism, racism, sexism…all present and accounted for) without the heavy-handedness that would plague lesser writers helps sets Netherworld apart from its genre brethren.
Morton masterfully opts for a straightforward narrative style in Netherworld, which gives the novel an instant readability that lends to the feeling that the book is marked by a running time instead of a page count. Like a literary set designer, she uses a commanding economy of words to fashion exquisitely grotesque set pieces that lend to the urgency of Lady Diana’s many harrowing otherworldly predicaments while bestowing the novel with a classic horror sensibility. Think Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Dracula with the energy of 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, lovingly brushed with a Tim Burton veneer – and starring Angelina Jolie in her action movie heyday.
Series can be a tricky business, but Morton successfully concludes Lady Diana’s first set of adventures satisfyingly enough (even managing an appearance by a real-life literary classic late in the third act in a wink to the some of the novel’s obvious inspiration) while leaving the door (and more than a few unearthly portals) open for her further supernatural escapades.
Purchase Netherworld by Lisa Morton.
Harper / September 2009
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno
Inexplicably, Audrey’s Door – Sarah Langan’s Bram Stoker Award-winning third novel – has languished in my to-be-read pile for far too long until recently. I claim inexplicability because I fell head over heels in love with Langan’s work after The Keeper (2006) and its sequel-of-sorts, The Missing (2007), so it’s a bit of a mystery why I hadn’t moved this one to the top of the pile long ago.
The titular character – surname Lucas – moves into an apartment building called The Breviary. Intrigued by the building’s rare Chaotic Naturalism architecture and drawn to its bargain-basement rent, Audrey seems willing to overlook the fact that the previous tenant in 14B – a famed opera singer – drowned her four children in the apartment’s bathtub before slitting her own wrists. It isn’t long before the haunted apartment building and its creepy denizens – think Rosemary’s Baby meets Cocoon here – begin to command the rising architect to build a mysterious door. As Audrey’s Woody Allen-esque neuroses and obsessive compulsions ramp up to full-tilt, she – and the reader – begin to question her sanity.
Audrey’s Door is an interesting departure from the author’s previous efforts. Whereas both The Keeper and The Missing had a strong, almost claustrophobic sense of place from which the characters had little respite, Audrey’s Door doesn’t immediately give the reader a sense that its characters are trapped or even in grave danger until well into the third act. Despite increasingly outlandish, hallucinogenic nightmares and a sense that she’s losing control, Audrey never seems confined by the building. Her freedom to go to work, travel cross-country to Nebraska to tend to an ailing relative, and even traverse the city mid-hurricane detracts somewhat from that sense of physical isolation that so marvelously plagued the characters in her first two novels.
But Langan gives the reader a sense of a very different kind of isolation, one that’s less physical and more cerebral, by imbuing her story with the overriding theme of holding on to things that should be long let go of. The notion that what holds us back is a sometimes the overwhelming inability to get out of our own heads drives much of the conflict in Audrey’s Door. The result is paradoxical; the physical haunting caused by The Breviary almost takes a back-seat to the characters’ internal struggles. This lessens the traditional horror elements of the story, yet strengthens the subtler, more universal horrors within the characters themselves giving a more immediate, less fantastical sense of relatability to the characters’ plight. Audrey, a fully-drawn, beautifully flawed heroine, is holding on to her mother – both in memories and the physical sense. Her boyfriend, Saraub, is holding on to a dead-on-arrival documentary project, while his mother stubbornly clings to outdated cultural traditions that prevent her from accepting Audrey and strain relations with her only son. Audrey’s boss at the architecture firm holds on to crippling guilt and regrets about her abilities as a mother in the face of a family tragedy. New friend and fellow Breviary dweller Jayne holds on to long-standing insecurities. Even the kooky assortment of tenants who populate The Breviary are desperately holding on to their youth to grotesque effect. So, while The Breviary is busy exercising its own literal demons, each character finds either doom or redemption by confronting their own.
Langan wisely opts to make The Breviary a character onto itself, both endowing the apartment building with a rich and colorful sense of history and personifying its physical structure to such a degree that it appears to live and breathe. This allows the building itself to be more an active participant in the hauntings it inflicts on others versus remaining a mere receptacle for the malevolence at the center of its history:
It happened so slowly at first, none of them noticed. The walls hummed. The stained-glass birds and mosaics sometimes took flight. The hallways constricted like throats. Hinges creaked. Nightmares flew loose from their authors and inhabited the building like cold air.
That Langan’s work skews heavier toward the more literary leanings of Peter Straub versus the more mass market trappings of, say, Bentley Little makes it easier to overlook the fact that this is dark fiction in which the rewards come in subtle, character-driven moments versus a series of grisly set pieces or overt shock. Although Audrey’s Door lacks some of the creepier horror elements that permeated both The Keeper and The Missing, the tremendous humanity with which Langan draws even the most minor of characters will enthrall. Read a chapter like “Baby’s Breath” in which one of the characters meanders through the house late at night considering each member of her family and you’ll quickly find yourself pleasantly disoriented, as if you’ve stumbled into a gorgeous piece of literary fiction of the highest caliber.
Audrey’s Door may be indicative of Langan’s greatest strength as a dark scribe: Elevating what’s essentially a tried-and-true horror story at its core to a wholly unique literary hybrid that almost defies categorization.
Purchase Audrey’s Door by Sarah Langan.
Tor Books / March 2011
Reviewed by: Mark W. Worthen
Before there was Lestat, before Jean-Claude, before Bill, Eric, Russell and their True Blood crews, and long before Edward and his family arrived on the literary scene, there was Ragozcy Franciscus, Count Saint-Germain. In the late 70s, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, the Grande Dame of the Gothic Vampire, created what is surely the first of the characters of his kind — archetype of the heroic romantic vampire figure.
According to her official website, Yarbro read Dracula at an early age, and immediately became a vampire aficionada. Later, when she began to write her own vampire, she desired to create a different kind of bloodsucker, one who wanted – needed – to involve himself in the affairs of humans in order to become more a part of the world he feels somewhat alienated from. She moved away from the “Dracula model” and is repeatedly credited with having laid the ground work for the vampire as a romantic figure rather than a frightening one.
Saint-Germain first saw light (so to speak) in the 1978 novel, Hotel Transylvania, a work that placed the man in his native area for the first time and introduced readers to the melancholy character – alchemist by day, mysterious figure by night – dressing in black and gray adorned with fabulous jewels, many of his own making. It is rumored that Saint-Germain is based on a true historic figure, one equally shrouded in mystery and carrying the same name and title.
An Embarrassment of Riches is the twenty-fourth installment in the Saint-German series, and Rakoczy Ferancsi, Comes of Santu Germaniu, as he is known in this time (he changes the order, spelling and pronunciation of his name to match the language of the area where he resides) arrives in Praha (Prague) in the latter half of 1269 A.D. Exiled from his native earth, he arrives in Praha, capital of Bohemia, as an exile from the court of King Bela of Hungary, the current boundaries of which encompass Ragoczy's lands, Santu Germaniu, and the people in his fief who live there. King Otakar II of Bohemia is away expanding his territories, leaving his pregnant queen, Kunigunde, who happens to be Bela’s daughter, to rule over the city.
Rakoczy takes a fixer-upper mansion in Praha, and, after revamping the place, he moves in and begins to make jewels for the queen. Not much time passes before Rozsa, one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting comes to offer Rakoczy a proposition. If he will take her as a lover to fulfill desires her husband cannot satisfy, she will not cry rape, which would result in his burning at the stake and suffering the true death. He accepts her proposition. But she is cold, aloof, requiring him to service her, but not giving him the closeness and intimacy he requires to stay alive, not only painting him into a political corner, but denying him even the opportunity to derive sustenance from or even enjoy his position.
When not with Rozsa, he provides the requisite jewels for Queen Kunigunde, but is additionally forced to fill the coffers of several others scrambling for political position, including the local bishop, a few strategic courtiers and Rozsa herself. Finally he is tapped to provide monetary resources for the king’s battles. Such a project does not prove terribly difficult for Rakozcy; his expertise in alchemy enables him to make any jewel except pearls in his athanor. He bakes them like cookies, but the time consuming process forces him to spend most of his days in his laboratory as a result.
Tongues wag at his riches, and court intrigues ensue, including another liaison with a younger lady-in-waiting and a visiting young woman who attempts to throw herself at the count. All the events in the book come to a head in the final forty pages. In the end, Rakoczy realizes that an embarrassment of riches (of more than one variety) is not necessarily the answer to his problems.
Yarbro has a unique way of telling her stories. She often chooses what at first appear to be long scenes where people only talk and do a mundane project or service for someone, such as rubbing the pregnant queen’s feet in the height of summer — but it is during these scenes she often reveals crucial information to either advance the plot, add to the local color that influences the situation or both. During the first two parts of the book, there is a subplot in which the bishop must decide if the rat infestation in Praha should be taken care of by killing the rats, despite the fact that they are creatures of God. He ultimately decides the disease-ridden beasts should indeed be exterminated. The counselors of Praha appeal to Rakoczy, at which time he reveals his knowledge of poisons. Since poison is often the weapon of choice for assassinations, this adds to the precariousness of his situation as he and his servants fall under suspicion first by the bishop, then by the court.
The richness of historical details in Yarbro’s writing are dead-on accurate. In fact, she has a reputation for researching the time period, costumes, architecture, language, customs and technology of each book long before she begins writing it. One characteristic of the Saint-Germain novels is that Yarbro likes to place the reader in as authentic an environment as possible. So you get elegant descriptions of everything. One of Yarbro’s strengths is weaving in these descriptions either with action or scenes portraying daily court life. But Yarbro is too savvy a writer to let each scene serve only a single purpose. As such a multi-tasker, most scenes will perform three or more of the following chores: Describing traditional behavior or customs, portraying clothing or architecture, providing information that will, of course, become important in advancing the story. There isn’t a single scene that only accomplishes one purpose. At first read, the descriptions make some of the prose seem heavy, but it is not. It is tight and provides the reader a fast interesting read — which is not common among writers of historical fiction, who frequently tend to lean towards the ponderous.
Upon reading this book, your first instinct will be grab a dictionary or to look things up on the Internet. Don’t. Quinn Yarbro will make it clear exactly what she’s talking about, and if she doesn’t, she’ll tell you what it is in her introduction — skip the intro at your own risk. But as she trickles in her plot details, showing people get dressed, you will learn words like bleihaut, chainse, soler, and pectoral.
As dark scribe John Skipp often points out, “All art is a Rorschach test.” For me, then, I’m a history geek and a vampire nut. You have to be a little of both to really get into this, which is why Yarbro’s work appeals particularly to a cult following — a massive cult following to be sure, but cult nonetheless. If you’re like me and enjoy this kind of book, An Embarrassment of Riches gets a B+ for story — it does move at a slightly more sedate pace than say, Blood Games, for example. But I give it an A (as always) for its historical accuracy. If you only marginally like vampires, or do not care for slow-building horror or fascinating historical details, you’ll probably be better served choosing something else altogether.
Just because An Embarrassment of Riches is about vampires doesn’t mean it will be your cup of tea. But if you like vampires and history, spies, steamy love scenes, court intrigues, backbiting and infighting, you should be all over this work of literary and fictional art.
Purchase An Embarrassment of Riches by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.