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Book Review: Lost Prince by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

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Lost Prince is a reissue edition of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's 1983 novel, The Godforsaken. The story is set in Spain during the mid-1500s, when the Spanish Inquisition was at the height of its power. Bishops, ambassadors, nobility and even the royal family itself could be arrested on charges of heresy and subjected to interrogation, torture, and execution. The auto-da-fé, in which dozens or scores of convicted heretics were burned alive in one great spectacle, was a regular event. Dress, social customs, manners, and the most trivial daily routines were rigidly confined within rules set by the Church, and the least divergence from those rules was enough to provoke suspicion. The Inquisition placed spies everywhere; it was a most uncongenial environment to be a werewolf.

As werewolf stories go, Lost Prince might be classified "retro." The current literary vogue treats lycanthropy as empowering, not as a liability. The werewolf has evolved to challenge the vampire for the romantic role of the sexy, edgy, dangerous lover. But twenty-five years ago when Lost Prince was written, werewolves were not usually depicted as a different, even superior, species within their own subculture, hierarchy and history. Don Rolon is the victim of a curse, one which he did nothing to deserve. As his awareness of his condition slowly grows, he shrivels with horror and shame at his own deeds and his beast-like transformed self. Like the classic "wolf man" Larry Talbot, Don Rolon can see no possible way to reconcile his curse with his normal life. If he can't escape the curse, death is his only alternative.

As in her Saint-Germain vampire series, Yarbro's treatment of her protagonist's supernatural condition is understated. Don Rolon's physical appearance as a werewolf, and his transformation, are never clearly described. We only get hints through the emotions and reactions of those around him, and eventually Don Rolon himself. The mayhem that the werewolf commits is mentioned, but in far less detail than the torture inflicted by the Inquisition on its victims. Although the werewolf slaughters women, children, and Don Rolon's friends and kin, Yarbro implies that its actions are mild compared to the horrors inflicted by self-justified human beings. This is a consistent theme in Yarbro's work. In a 2005 interview with Linda Suzane, Yarbro said, "The Saint-Germain novels are called historical horror novels for a reason: history is horrifying. Compared to what people do to people, even a really hungry vampire is pretty small potatoes."

Lost Prince is a bleak story in which the innocent suffer while the evil-doers apparently thrive. In the Prologue, Rey Alonzo II of Spain is cursed by a woman being led to the stake at an auto-da-fé. "As I am innocent and suffer, so your innocents will suffer," she proclaims. Subsequently, Alonzo's frail wife dies giving birth to Don Rolon, and Alonzo's second wife produces two mentally challenged girls who are pronounced unfit to marry. The story jumps ahead nineteen years to find Don Rolon, Alonzo's only legal heir, beginning to suspect that something dreadfully wrong is happening to him every month at the full moon.

As the story unfolds along this theme, it raises questions about the inherent injustice of life itself. In the Spain of Lost Prince, power determines destiny. Those who are principled, honest, and well-intentioned are handicapped by their own virtues when they're confronted by evil. Don Rolon, who is so "innocent" that his virility is constantly questioned, to his annoyance, turns the tables on his enemies when the wolf empowers him. But he detests his curse and goes so far as to seek magical assistance to end it. As the book progresses, we can see the grim fates looming ahead for nearly all the characters, and Yarbro is merciless in letting these play out. If the book contains any moral message at all, it might be found in Alonzo's spineless acquiescence to the Inquisition and its chief executive, Padre Juan Murador. If I had been in Alonzo's position, I'd have had Padre Murador assassinated before he got that far.

The pacing of Lost Prince is slow, dwelling at length on character interactions, description and plot development. At places, the narrative grinds to a glacial crawl, as when it takes eight pages for Don Rolon to read a letter from his father. The early introduction of Inez, who becomes Don Rolon's mistress, seems arbitrary and illogical to me. Don Rolon's character hasn't been developed enough at that point for it to make sense that his friends would collude in providing him with a concubine, especially given the iron grip of the Church and its moral code on everyone's lives in Spain. Inez could have served various functions in the novel as a vulnerability for Don Rolon, especially after she becomes intensely jealous of Don Rolon's Venezian bride, Zaretta. But ultimately, Inez has little impact on the story. Zaretta, who marries Don Rolon in a politically arranged match, is so stunningly beautiful, saucy and independent that she's almost anachronistic, but she does serve to highlight the difference between the harsh Spanish society and other European cultures of the day.

Unfortunately, this reissue edition of the novel is seriously marred by typesetting errors. I have never seen a book with this many serious typos. There is not a single page without multiple errors, including one instance where a block of several paragraphs is printed twice. Wrong letters, wrong punctuation, missing letters, missing punctuation, omitted spaces between words, missing strings of words, hyphenated words in the middle of lines, missing section breaks, misplaced section breaks–the book is filled with them. I am an independent publisher and I do book design and typesetting. I would be utterly mortified to send a book to press in this condition. Obviously, the author shares no blame in how the book is printed, but I found myself wondering whether I could fairly review a book that has so many typographical mistakes. More than once, I found a sentence that was incomprehensible, and I don't know if that was due to the writing or the typesetting. The Prologue and Chapter One start with the same set of dates, so it took me several chapters to figure out how much time has passed and how old Don Rolon is when he's introduced. That was made even trickier by the fact that the synopsis on the back cover is inaccurate.

Technical problems aside, Lost Prince does draw a richly detailed portrait of a time and place you would never want to live in. It offers a different concept of werewolves than the current trend, and presents several complex and engaging characters, especially the dwarf court jester, Lugantes. Fans of Yarbro's Saint-Germain series will find many similarities and parallels to those books, and might enjoy reading Lost Prince in conjunction with Darker Jewels, set in the same time period but a very different society, 16th century Russia. However, I strongly urge Borderlands Press to correct the plates for Lost Prince before printing any more copies.

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About Vyrdolak

Inanna Arthen (Vyrdolak) is an artist, speaker and author of The Vampires of New England Series (http://vampiresofnewengland.com): Mortal Touch (2007), The Longer the Fall (2010), and All the Shadows of the Rainbow (2013). Book 4 is currently in progress. Inanna is a lifelong scholar of vampire folklore, fiction and fact, and runs By Light Unseen Media (http://bylightunseenmedia.com), an independent press dedicated to publishing vampire fiction and nonfiction. She is a member of Broad Universe, New England Horror Writers, Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) and Independent Publishers of New England (IPNE). She holds an M.Div degree from Harvard and is an outspoken advocate for the Pagan and LGBT communities. She is minister of the Unitarian-Unitarian Church of Winchendon, MA.