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An Embarrassment of Riches / Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

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.

Posted on Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 02:46PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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