The author who attempts to create a piece of historical fiction has challenges and choices not faced by writers in other genres. Aside from the obvious of having to research the era under observation, one has to then decide about the application of the knowledge. Is it the history or the story that is most important?
Some authors choose to set a story in a different time as a means of exploring actual historical events; telling history through the eyes of a fictional character is an effective means of bringing to life important epochs in a manner that a textbook is never able to accomplish.
For others the lure of history is the appeal of the exotic locale. They utilize the atmosphere of a particular period as a backdrop for the action they have envisioned for their heroes and heroines. These “costume dramas” have less concern with historical events and more for historical mood.
In either case the major challenge of the author is the incorporation of their research into the novel without it being detrimental to the activity of storytelling. Do they get so wrapped up in displaying their knowledge that they fall short in other areas of the novel? No matter if they are giving an account of an actual battle or telling a story set in the 17th century they still need to create characters we care about and provide a storyline that interests us.
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s latest work falls more into the area of costume drama than recreation of actual events. (A sub genre of speculative/fantasy within historical fiction) States of Grace is set in Europe of the Counter Reformation when the Catholic Church is reacting to the establishment of Protestant sects.
Where her work differs from a lot of historical fiction is that her protagonist, The Count Saint-Germain, happens to be thousands of years old and a vampire. At this point in his existence the Count has established himself as a successful merchant in Venice who also has publishing interests throughout the Lowlands. (This was the name given to roughly the territory we now know as Holland and Belgium. It was controlled primarily by Catholic Spain, but the local inhabitants were some of the first to convert to various strains of Protestantism. This area was a therefore a flashpoint for violence and abuses by both sides in the fight for souls.)
As the Catholic Church fights to maintain its power base they attack anything that smacks of the least bit of heresy. Book publishers are especially suspect by the Spanish Inquisition in the Lowlands because of their power to disseminate information outside of Church control.
As if this isn’t enough for the Count to concern himself with, he is also the target of a plot in Venice to fleece him of his fortune by unscrupulous members of the ruling class. Of course there are also the constant worries that accompany his “condition” which living in Venice can only exasperate. Since both running water and sunlight are anathema to vampires he must take sizable precautions in order to carry out a semblance of a normal life.
Of course being under increased scrutiny from the Church in the Lowlands and the spies of the ruling class in Venice also increases the chances of his true nature being discovered. Since the un dead are one of the few things that both Catholics and Protestants would agree on, it means he has to be highly circumspect and discreet.
It’s obvious that Chelsea Quinn Yarbro has done her research. The attention to detail of everything from style of dress to foods eaten and served in the different parts of Europe at the time alone is breathtaking. Combined with a deft hand at descriptive narrative and knowledge of the political temperament of the time, she gives her reader a glimpse into another time and place.
Unfortunately it’s the details that are the undoing of the story. While it is one thing to describe what someone is wearing, it’s another all together itemize every single garment. Although the inclusion of a tailors’ bill might be considered by some as a sign of verisimilitude on the part of the author, the constant interruptions of flow caused by such descriptive passages were more distracting than informative.
Considering the time period, the locations, and the nature of the central character I had expectations of something a little more involving and engrossing. Intrigues in Venice, confrontations with the Spanish Inquisition and a vampire all in the same story had me hoping for something a little more compelling.
Instead the author’s detached language and adherence to a formalness of style reduces even the most interesting confrontations to almost bloodless debates. Even the more notorious aspects of a vampire’s lifestyle are skipped over, with more emphasis placed on Count Saint – Germain as a romantic hero type figure.
While there is nothing wrong with this, the blood sucking fiend is just as boring a stereotype, I found very little in his character to hold my interest. While some of the minor characters, especially some of the more conniving Italian villains had their nastiness to make them intriguing. Neither the count nor the two lead women characters had any real depth.
The women especially were disappointing. For a musician and an author, both fields that require a measure of intellect and, considering the times, self-confidence, were far too prone to bashful glances, tears and trembling limbs. Although some of that behaviour can be put down to the uncertainty any women of the time would feel in dealing with a man of higher station, the actions of especially his mistress the musician seemed a little overblown.
What made these characterizations so jarring was Ms. Yarbro’s attention to historical detail. The juxtaposition of accuracy and stereotypes seriously detracted from the feelings of authenticity that were created in other parts of the book.
What I found most disappointing about States Of Grace was that Chelsea Quinn Yarbro is a very skilled writer and obviously enthusiastic researcher. She is highly adept at the descriptive passages that create the pictures in a reader’s head that set the stage for the action to be played out.
Unfortunately this could not compensate for what I felt to be the emotional hollowness at the core of the action that left me not really caring what happened to the characters one way or another. It was almost like reading descriptions of a variety of still life paintings. Charming to look at but no real depth beyond the use of colour and texture.
Finding the balance in a historical novel between accuracy and interest can be extremely difficult. While States Of Grace shows all the signs of being well researched I did not find that sufficient to compensate for its romance novel nature and the bloodlessness of the plot. It was a cup of tea that was far too sweet for my tastes.