01/10/2009. Contributed by Pauline Morgan
pub: TOR/Forge. 382 page hardback. Price: $27.95 (US), $30.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-1981-4).
check out website: www.tor-forge.com and www.chelseaquinnyarbro.net
Vampires have been part of the folktales of almost every culture across the world since men began to tell tales around the campfire. Mostly these creatures were to be feared. The Hindu goddess, Kali, was a demon hunter and a blood drinker. The two went hand in hand as from every drop of demon's blood, sprang another demon.
Bram Stoker was probably the writer who crystallised the Western view of vampires in his novel 'Dracula'. He drew on Eastern European folklore and tales of the Hungarian prince known as Vlad the Impaler, as well as the Victorian fear of female sexuality to build his tale. Stoker laid the ground rules for vampire fiction. Vampires appear very attractive to the opposite sex. They need to sleep on their native soil - usually in the bottom of a coffin, have no reflection and cannot cross running water. They can be warded off by garlic, crosses and holy water. They can be destroyed by fire, sunlight a stake through the heart or decapitation.
From these beginnings, a wealth of vampire fiction has grown. Anne Rice kept to most of the rules in creating her vampires in 'Interview With A Vampire' and subsequent novels. Others have changed the rules to suit their own style of storytelling and found ingenious ways of getting round the original restrictions. Not all 'modern' vampires need to kill their prey. In both the series of novels by Laurell K. Hamilton and Charlaine Harris, vampires have come out. They are legally treated as an ethnic minority. However an author treats their vampires, two things remain true - they are sexy and they are dangerous. The vampire novel is still popular while other types of horror are in decline because of these two qualities. Most of us would like these two qualities in our partners and lives but maybe don't want to go that far.
One of the earlier vampire series began in 1978 with the publication of 'Hotel Transylvania' by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. The Count Saint-Germain has evolved over the years and the many novels he features in has his essential nature remaining the same and holds to many of Stoker's criteria. The volumes can be read in any order as each is a story complete in itself, though there are allusions to past events, which is not surprising as by the time 'A Dangerous Climate' begins in 1704, he has survived thirty-seven centuries as a vampire. To do that, he has had to be adaptable and intelligent. While he can survive on the blood of animals like horses, to thrive, he needs human blood. The best is taken from willing women in the throes of sexual ecstasy. He can go out in daylight, though he prefers not to, as he is protected by the native soil he wears packed in the soles and heels of his footwear. He has two main problems - he does not cast a reflection and has to find ways to explain why he does not eat or drink in public.
When this novel begins, Saint-Germain is acting as an agent for King Augustus, a Hungarian but co-ruler of Poland. This is the time when Czar Piotyr of Russia, later known as Peter the Great, has decided to create a new city on the swampland of the Baltic coast. He is calling it Sankt Piterburkh as he has a taste for Western European ways. He is employing the best engineers he can find from Scotland, Holland and England to organise the draining of the marsh and build the city to his plans. Anyone he invites to his city does not leave until they are deceased or given permission.
The aristocrat, Zozia Ksiezna Nisko, has been invited to the city along with her husband who has a reputation for building treadmill pumps. She is an agent for the Polish king but, unfortunately, her husband has disappeared. In order not to waste the opportunity of keeping an eye on the Czar's plans, Saint-Germain has been instructed to pose as her husband.
Soon after they arrive, he is attacked and taken to the care house to have his injuries attended to. Here he meets Ludmilla, estranged wife of a Russian Boyer, and van Hoek a Dutch physician. In gratitude for his care, Saint-Germain provides potions to ease the suffering of the sick and injured. The care house, the only medical facility in the city is important, not just for treating the frequent injuries but to counter the diseases that spread in the summer months. This is literally a dangerous climate because of the biting insects that act as vectors for swamp fever. The political situation is also dangerous. Czar Piotyr is at war with Sweden. The fate of anyone can be decided by his whim and Saint Germain has concerns of his own. Firstly, it seems that the attack on himself was not just bad luck, someone wants him dead. Also he has to keep his nature concealed and getting proper sustenance is difficult when there are relatively few women in the city. Then a young man turns up claiming to be his nephew and to have inherited all his wealth and lands.
This book is packed full of historical detail but it is slipped in, in such a way that it does not overwhelm the reader. Yarbro uses the technique of interspersing her chapters with letters to and from the city by various people. This gives an excellent sense of time passing as well as informing the reader about the events important with to the community without having to double the length of the novel by describing the events in detail. She paints an atmospheric picture of what life would have been like using few words, chosen carefully. This is a great skill, not practised by enough writers.
The historical period itself is fascinating and there is much more going on than is seen at first glance. Saint-Germain is a great character for conveying nuances and dangers of Russian society in Sankt Piterburkh at this time. A newcomer to this series might prefer to begin with one of the novels set in the Roman period. The Saint-Germain novels are good example of how to write vampire fiction.
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