Book Review: The Saint-Germain Memoirs by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

The Saint-Germain Memoirs is the third collection of stories featuring Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s popular vampire hero, Count Rogoczy Saint-Germain. The Saint-Germain novels are long, leisurely, meticulously researched books set in historical time periods ranging from dynastic Egypt to the twentieth century. Saint-Germain, who debuted in 1978 in the novel Hotel Transylvania, was among the first wholly sympathetic and moral vampire characters in literature, but his unique nature and his extremely long history (he is some 4,000 years old) make him challenging to depict fairly in a shorter work. The Saint-Germain Memoirs incorporates five tales of varying lengths: two short stories, two novelettes, and the book’s centerpiece, a 42,000-word novella. Of these, the novella is unquestionably the best piece in the book, encapsulating the finest elements of the Saint-Germain series as a whole.

I’ve read nearly all of the Saint-Germain novels, so I can’t gauge how a reader with no previous experience of Yarbro’s character would experience the stories in The Saint-Germain Memoirs. However, as I read them, I sensed that I was picking up on a lot of subtle hints and details that required extensive background information to appreciate. In her Introduction, Sharon Russell argues that the stories have something to offer readers regardless of their familiarity with Saint-Germain, but I remain unconvinced. Individuals who already have a good working knowledge of the character and his history will get the most from these brief glimpses into his life.

“Harpy,” originally published in the anthology, The Secret History of Vampires, is a good example of a story that is full of meaning for those who already know Saint-Germain, but may be puzzling to new readers. One of the Amazon reviewers for The Secret History of Vampires identified the enigmatic “Ragosh-ski” in the story as Dracula! Although “Harpy” presents an interesting character study of a historical person rarely given much thought–I can’t say who without spoiling the twist ending–it took me a while to pin down the time period based on the descriptions. This is a peril of setting a story in a location, Athens, that has been consistently occupied under the same name for 2,500 years. I also remained uncertain, by the story’s end, as to why Saint-Germain picked out this woman for assistance–whether he knew her by reputation or was able, as the story hints, to sense some special quality she possessed.

“A Gentleman of the Old School,” originally published in Dark Delicacies, is one of the very rare Saint-Germain tales set in the present-day. This story concentrates much more on its mortal characters, with Saint-Germain appearing as a wealthy man of mystery who feeds an eager female reporter some clues in a serial murder case. In her Afterword, Yarbro describes her writing process, explaining that her character “talks to her” and that “I’m one of those writers who has to have characters come alive before I can write about them…I immerse myself in the environment of the story, the history, the circumstances, and as much actual information we have regarding how people of the time saw themselves and their world.” I completely sympathize, because I write the same way. But some years ago I had a conversation with Ms. Yarbro and asked her why she hadn’t written a novel about Saint-Germain in the present day. She told me that for some reason, those stories just wouldn’t easily gel for her. “A Gentleman of the Old School” has that in common with the other modern-day Saint-Germain stories: somehow, Yarbro’s hero hasn’t quite found a natural place in the post-Y2K world.

The novelette “Intercession” was originally published in Repentants. Presented in epistolary style, “Intercession” consists of letters written by Saint-Germain’s manservant, Rogerio, in his efforts to free his master from incarceration in 17th century Spanish territory in the New World. Readers of the novels already know that Saint-Germain is imprisoned when his oldest friend, the vampire Olivia, dies in an explosion in Rome. This story includes that event. However, I found “Intercession” to be the weakest of the five pieces in this collection. To me, it merely seemed repetitive: the years go by as Rogerio writes letter after letter seeking answers or aid. The point–that in such historical times even a wealthy person could be unjustly imprisoned indefinitely without hope of redress–is made long before the story ends. Including Olivia’s death in that time frame without any mention of its effect on Saint-Germain leaves too large a gap. “Intercession” demands that the reader imagine how Saint-Germain must be feeling: helpless, cut off from all friendly communication and aware that Olivia is gone. This can be an effective device, but in “Intercession,” it simply doesn’t work for me.

The novelette, “Lost Epiphany,” doesn’t actually tell a story, but it delivers a highly entertaining account of how Saint-Germain maneuvers his way among several groups of colorful and hostile antagonists. Despite his vampiric state, Saint-Germain possesses few supernatural powers. He survives primarily through his own resourcefulness and his long knowledge of the human psyche. In “Lost Epiphany,” set in the early first millennium A.D., Saint-Germain’s merchant ship has been captured by pirates in the Mediterranean, and one of his only advantages, enhanced strength and endurance, is severely curtailed by starvation and exposure to running water. Given an opportunity to go ashore on an island and negotiate with a monastery there for supplies, Saint-Germain uses his wits to gain an edge for himself with the monks–who have some surprises of their own. “Lost Epiphany” is an ingenious object lesson in how an immortal might survive a crisis without any of the deus-ex-machina tricks that are usually associated with vampires.

The novella “Tales Out of School” forms the heart of The Saint-Germain Memoirs in every sense. I thoroughly enjoyed this story. Set in 14th century Padua (then Padova), Saint-Germain attempts to help a widow suffering from a terminal disease, as he negotiates the tricky political and social issues related to his teaching alchemy and herbalism to students at Padova University. “Tales Out of School” is rich with historical detail, colorful and interesting characters, and true human drama. Containing all the core elements of the novels, it is complete as is: any longer, and it would be over-stuffed and lose its strong narrative threads. It is worth the price of the book alone.

The Saint-Germain Memoirs was initially issued in a signed and numbered hardcover edition by Elder Signs Press. It includes a brief, but informative Afterword by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro discussing her character and how the series began and evolved, and an Introduction by Sharon Russell. I enthusiastically recommend it to any reader who has enjoyed at least some of the Saint-Germain novels. Those who are new to the character may be mystified by the stories, but can find some answers to their questions on Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s official website.

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