Chelsea Quinn Yarbro,
Night Blooming
(Warner, 2002)

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro starts Night Blooming with a long, but entreating and useful historical foreword. She explains the tenor of the times she's working in: superstitious, divided, largely uneducated and illiterate.

And then the story begins with a letter, summoning Racokzy Saint-Germain to the court of Charlemagne. Another letter, this time by a nun at a Frankish convent, introduces the plight of Gynethe Mehaut, an unhappy albino cursed with stigmata in a time before the church had established a position on it. This technique is used to tell a large section of the story, particularly for historical details or background characters. Irritating at first, it soon feels natural, and the room for reader-created details left between the lines of the brief notes enriches the story considerably. The shadow story contained in the notes is almost strong enough to stand on its own.

The full story is not nearly so brief and bare, but is equally compelling. Yarbro lingers over the details of life in Karl-lo-Magne's kingdom while establishing Saint-Germain's life in Franksland and following the unhappy life of Gynethe. Yarbro's Franksland is well researched and realized. The characters make the weight of fear and formality an almost tactile sensation. The constant frightened invocations of church and king, duty and disease, are a true reminder of the restrictions and tight limits laid on the lives of even the powerful. The brutal and incestuous power struggles between kings and churches are an object lesson on why separation of church and state seemed such a good idea to Enlightenment thinkers. The only disadvantage to this carefully built Dark Age is the use of anachronistic spelling; no matter how many times I saw it, I never got used to "Karl-lo-Magne" instead of the popularized Charlemagne.

The episodes of Rakoczy's slow life in this chaotic but harshly ruled age are broken up with interludes at Karl's court, and the increasingly dangerous pressures put on Gynethe Mehaut. The story lingers over its setup, but never drags; the fast resolution at the end is a disappointment, not because it feels forced or untrue, but because it necessarily cuts out some of the previous fine detail.

In this ornate setting, Saint-Germain's vampirism becomes an oddly minor point. This is partly due to the presence of Gynethe Mehaut the albino, whose condition puts her under similar limitations. But Germain's vampiric constraints are so mild that it hardly changes the story. Yarbro's occasional mentions of his age or the overused "native earth" phrase feel like an attempt to convince the reader that this is a vampire, by gosh, and break uncomfortably into a story that does quite well without them. Even the seemingly universal law that vampire fiction must be dosed with erotica is suspended; the few erotic scenes included are brief, discreet and respectful of the characters.

But there's certainly enough darkness in Night Blooming, with or without vampires. Rakoczy is too powerful a character to evoke much worry or sympathy, but Gynethe's circumstances, and her complete helplessness, left me wishing to offer her asylum. Her life of isolation and victimhood mark her as a child of her times, and her courage in dealing with her circumstances create an immediate sense of grief and sympathy beyond what fictional characters can usually summon. In the end she completely outshines Saint-Germain in his own chronicle.

Fans of hardcore vampire stories may be disappointed by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's lack of vampire glorification. But fans of history, fine characters and rich stories will find more than enough to satisfy their cravings in Night Blooming, and perhaps enough to foster an addiction to all the chronicles of Saint-Germain.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 8 February 2003

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