STATES OF GRACE
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

 


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18th in the Count of Saint-Germain Cycle
Tor, Sep 2005
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

Vampire. Europe 1530-31

The Conte di Santo-Germano appears to have made himself fully at home in Venice. Yet another century, and still another home. After 3,500 years, he is used to it. Suavely, graciously, di Santo-Germano moves through the canals and drawing rooms of Venice, winning respect with his dignity and generosity – no matter how debilitating it is for him to move over water, and no matter how treacherous the drawing rooms.

It is the time of the Reformation, and once again the devout are committing horrors against each other. If they knew that Franzicco Ragoczy di Santo-Germano was a vampire, religionists on both sides would stop their persecutions for long enough to consign him to the True Death. He is especially endangered by his printing businesses. Printers have fallen into disrepute because their books might give the wrong view of God – whichever view of God is in favor in the area – and because an educated populace is less obedient.

Yet di Santo-Germano finds good friends to love and worthy helpers to support. His mistress, Pier-Adriana Salier, is a musician and composer; without di Santo-Germano, she would be forbidden to publish her music simply because she is a woman. His master printers Giovanni Boromeo in Venice and Maarten Gerben in Bruges are honorable men who could be put out of business at any moment by the Spanish Inquisition. His contracted mercenary troop, led by James Belfountain, does not attempt to control the religious beliefs of its members, an unusual approach which lately is making it harder for them to get work. Most especially, di Santo-Germano earns the friendship of Erneste van Amsteljaxter, one of his authors, whose charitable instincts extend to her outspoken Protestant brother Onfroi and beyond. What is the Conte to do, to make such a long life worth living, but to love and care for the short-lived people around him?

Atmosphere is of the utmost importance in STATES OF GRACE. The luxury and elegance of the Conte’s Venetian home stands as refuge and counterpoint to the threats outside. So does the wise and self-effacing service of Ruggier, his majordomo, another immortal. The Conte’s care for his mistress Pier-Ariana, who loves him deeply, brings feeling and occasional sensuality into an otherwise detached story. Most of STATES OF GRACE is written from the world-weary viewpoint of a man to whom everything around him is ephemeral, and little has not been seen before.

Author Chelsea Quinn Yarbro does not believe in a spanking pace. She moves in leisurely fashion from this conversation to that activity, with much description of the background, all focused on thorough establishment of di Santo-Germano and most of the supporting cast. Repeatedly she spends a full paragraph describing someone’s clothing in minute detail – a detail I felt to be excessive, but there will be others who enjoy it. European events and their significance are described in expository discussions, also in letters interposed into the text and carried by courier across Europe. It is sometimes disconcerting to find the narrative cut off in the middle of a suspenseful chain of events, only to find the resolution referred to in a letter written weeks later from a friend in another country. This technique does help the reader feel the same sense of detachment as that felt by di Santo-Germano and Ruggier.

In my view the most outstanding characteristic of STATES OF GRACE is Yarbro’s feel for the sweep of social forces of the time. She recognizes the split factions of belief not only among Protestants but among Catholics, and she shows how the religious clashes were taken up by some to their political advantage. Printing, by its very invention some eighty years before, was also a potent political force. Those engaged in it must expect to come under attack in such divided times, no matter how much an honest businessman may wish to stay out of the conflict.

Yarbro turned the genre upside down when she made her series hero, Saint-Germain, a wise and kind vampire against a backdrop of some of history’s worst madnesses. She is quoted as saying “History is horror,” and she finds convincing examples to demonstrate. In addition to the Reformation, she has placed Saint-Germain in the rise of Nazi Germany, the continent-wide scythings of Genghis Khan and Tamurlane, and the Conquistador invasion of the New World. She has set him down in the courts of Ivan the Terrible and Nero, and in next year’s sequel to STATES OF GRACE, titled ROMAN DUSK, he must survive the mad boy-emperor Heliogabalus. 3,500 years of atrocities have taught Saint-Germain the value of civilized behavior to such an extent that he is not only a hero, he is a role model.

The series is not written in timeline order; it steps back and forth from the thirteen century, to the twentieth, to the seventh… The 19th book of the series, next year’s ROMAN DUSK, will take place in the third century. Throughout STATES OF GRACE, Yarbro refers to incidents in others of Saint-Germain’s adventures, some of which have not been written. I did a thorough search for the much-mentioned Julius Caesar story, which is the book that I would above all like to read, but there isn’t one. (Yet?) Yarbro’s rich writing and strong feeling for the time gives an invitation to sample again, in spite of the detachment and slow pace.

Nov 2005 Review

 

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