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Burning Shadows by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

01/10/2010. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

Buy Burning Shadows (a novel of The Count Saint-Germain) in the USA - or Buy Burning Shadows (a novel of The Count Saint-Germain) in the UK

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Burning Shadows (a novel of The Count Saint-Germain) by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. pub: TOR/Forge. 351 page small hardback. Price: $27.99 (US), $35.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-1982-1.

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There are two ways to deal with a serial character, other than trying to kill them off in the hope that they will go away. Conan Doyle tried that with Sherlock Holmes and his experience shows that it does not work. One is to continue with the saga and try to find ways developing the character further, as Laurel K. Hamilton does in her ‘Anita Blake’ novels. This may mean heaping more and more misfortune upon them. Having them settle down to a happy home life is not conducive to an exciting narrative. The alternative is to go back and fill in gaps in their life history which can help explain what caused them to become the person the reader has affinity for. If the character is relatively young, this can cause problems but when he is four thousand years old, there are plenty of gaps in his life that can be explored. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro has been time-hopping for some time, exploring history accompanied by her vampire, the Comte Saint-Germain.

Even this technique has it pitfalls. First, there is the burden of researching a new period of history for each new novel. It has to sound as authentic and fresh as that presented by any other good, enthusiastic historical novelist. Then there is the danger of wanting to put in snippets of information about the character which could contradict something that has appeared in an earlier-written novel but set in a later period. With any historically based novel, the writer needs to be sure that the characters do not express opinions or display knowledge that comes from a later age. Fortunately, Yarbro is skilful enough to avoid these traps.

Too many authors like to show off their knowledge by having their characters interact with famous people. The problem here is that anyone familiar to most readers is likely to have a well-documented life. It is difficult to say anything new about them. There are, however, situations that can arise against a backdrop of greater events. Beings such as vampires do like being in a position where they come to the attention of the powerful. In such events, they have to have ready explanations as to why they do not eat in public and are stronger than normal men.

Yarbro has chosen to begin ‘Burning Shadows’ in 438AD. Rome has already been sacked by Alaric the Goth. The Vandals are rampaging around southern Europe and Attila the Hun has begun his campaign to conquer Roman territories in the Northern provinces and he is occupying rather than just raiding - a change of tactics. It is a dangerous time to be alive.

Saint-Germain (or as he is known by his fifth century contempories, Sanctu-Germainios) is the foreign guardian of the town of Apulum Inferior on the northern borders of the crumbling Roman Empire. It means that he has a responsibility towards all the foreigners living there. This is a period of uncertainty as no-one knew when or if the barbarians were going to attack. Saint-Germain persuades his friend and fellow vampire, Olivia, to leave for her holding to the south in Romano-Gothic territory but remains to fulfil his responsibility. With the remaining townsfolk, he takes refuge in a Christian monastery in the mountains. Here, they all face the problems of survival – a large number of people in severe winter weather afraid of being attacked at any time. Largely, Saint-Germain leaves the problems of defence and supply to others, concentrating on the skills he can share, those of healing.

Saint-Germain is different from vampires depicted in most novels. He is a man of compassion and cares about mortals and especially those on which he has to feed. In his role as medic, he is assisted by a female refugee, Nicoris. He needs to feed, but does not do so lightly, explaining to Nicoris the consequences of their relationship from the outset.

Ostensibly, this could be called an historical fantasy novel with vampires. It is actually much more than that. It is a peephole through into the society of the period. Yarbro skilfully shows the hopes, fears and tragedies of those living through a troubled time. We get an insight into the hardships of the people who thought they had the eternal might of the Roman Empire behind them, only to discover that they have been abandoned. If nothing else, books like ‘Burning Shadows’ should be read to understand better our own histories.

Pauline Morgan

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