Chelsea Quinn Yarbro,
States of Grace
(Tor, 2005)

States of Grace places the vampire Saint-Germain in Venice in the 1530s. He has established himself as the Conte Franzicco Ragoczy de Santo-Germano, a successful man of business, an exile in residence in La Serenissima with holdings all over Europe. In addition to his shipping concerns, he has become a publisher at a time when books are looked upon by all sides in the religious conflicts of the day as dangerous. He has also made himself the patron and lover of a talented young musician, Pier-Ariana Salier, which proves only another reason for powerful interests in Venice to seek his ruin, including the young and quite profligate Leoncio Sen, nephew of the powerful Christofo Sen, senior secretary of the Savii da Mar, a major office in the government of the Doges.

There are many subtleties in this book, most notably the understated quality of the characterizations. Saint-Germain himself is in some ways rather muted as a character, but somehow comes vividly to life. Yarbro doesn't beat you over the head with him, which is something I appreciate. Everyone has identifying quirks that cast them into sharp relief (even those whom we only meet through their letters). The story moves slowly, but when the threat does come, it has that much more impact. In what seems to be a recurring device, Yarbro uses letters from various associates to Saint-Germain to fill in background, adding to the rich texture of the novel.

Another point worth mentioning is that, like her other stories of Saint-Germain, Yarbro feels no need to introduce the "natural history" of vampires in any obvious way, nor is there the kind of eroticism that is so often an aspect of vampire novels. These are really character studies as much as anything else, and studies of time and place, carefully drawn, reflective, exploratory in the best sense.

Yarbro is quite deservedly known for the historical research that goes into her novels, and I certainly can't fault the verisimilitude in this one, although in this book it turned out to be double-edged: eventually, the minute descriptions of articles of clothing that seem to have no modern equivalents proves a distraction, and sometimes an irritation. There is an old writer's saw especially applicable to fantasy, science fiction and their offshoots that goes something on the order of "the author needs to know everything about the world; the reader doesn't." There are places in this book where Yarbro just gives us too much information, and it sometimes impacts the flow of the narrative. I will say, however, that the milieus in Venice and the Low Countries are very well drawn and acquire a high degree of reality.

In spite of its faults, I found this to be an absorbing story, rich in detail, with sharply drawn characters and certainly evidencing enough dramatic tension to keep me turning the pages. Yarbro's prose is also enjoyable, just in and of itself. I suspect I will be keeping an eye out for others in this series.

by Robert M. Tilendis
3 December 2005

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