01/08/2011. Contributed by Pauline Morgan
An Embarrassment Of Riches (a novel of The Count Saint-Germain) by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. pub: TOR/Forge. 383 page small hardback. Price: $29.99 (US), $34.50 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-3103-8.
check out website: www.tor-forge.com
A good historical novel should be able to do two things – portray the period accurately and teach the reader something new. Since too many of the younger generation take their history from books and films, it is important not to perpetuate inaccuracies because the writer is sloppy and hasn’t bothered to do research from primary resources. There will be occasions when a fiction writer can justifiably take liberties. Hilary Mantel in the Booker Prize winning ‘Wolf Hall’ admits to having condensed the time scale in order to increase the tension and promote a flow to the narrative. Crime writers do this all the time as police procedures in real life can be tedious and prolonged. Mantel is not trying to distort history but to make the story more exciting within the bounds she has set herself. Similarly, in one of the recent crop of Roman films, horsemen were seen using stirrups, an innovation that only came several centuries later. When the director explains that they had to do this because of the idiocies of Health and Safety Regulations, a different slant is put on it. As the detail is not crucial to the plot it becomes an acceptable anachronism.
‘An Embarrassment Of Riches’ fulfils both criteria for a good historical novel. The research is impeccable and since it covers a period and place that few other writers have explored, the reader is very likely to learn something they didn’t know. For complete satisfaction, add a vampire. Anyone who argues about this is likely to be a scholar of 13th century Eastern European customs and politics.
The vampire in question is the Count Saint-Germain, but here known as Rakoczy Ferancsi, Comesi Santu-Germaniu. Although having lived for many centuries, his ancestral home is in the Carpathians, in 1269 an area under the aegis of Konig Bela of Hungary. A rich man, Rakoczy has been forced into exile at the court of Konige Kunigunde, wife of the Konig of Bohemia and grand-daughter of Bela. His orders are to keep the Konige supplied with jewels that he makes in his athenor, a process he has perfected over the centuries. The penalty for failure will be the confiscation of his lands and the subjugation of his serfs. He may be a vampire but he feels his responsibility to his people keenly. This is a vampire who only kills if absolutely necessary. He does need nourishment, though. The best blood is taken from a woman in the throes of sexual ecstasy. He does visit women in their sleep, leaving them with a pleasant dream but he prefers their willing co-operation. Such women, though, can provide complications.
Rozsa of Borsod is married to a knight, a favourite of Konig Otakar of Bohemia. If Rakoczy doesn’t do as she wants, she will cry rape. He knows that she is more likely to be believed than an exile, even a wealthy one. Imbolya of Heves knows that she is to be married to a man of her father’s choice. Before then, she wants to experience some of the passion found in the love songs of troubadours. Iliska of Szousa, however, has decided she is going to marry Rakoczy despite what everyone tells her. At the same time, he cannot afford to displease the Konige. He has to try and find a way through this field of caltrops without disclosing his true nature or being denounced for crimes he has not committed.
As in her other novels featuring Saint-Germain, Yarbro captures the essence of the period, both the privations and the politics, the splendour and the intrigue while reminding subtly that humans have the same needs and ambitions whatever period of history they dwell in. If there is any quibble it is the emphasis on the designs, fabrics and colours of the costumes.
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