Book Review: A Dangerous Climate by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

A Dangerous Climate (Tor: September 30, 2008) is the twentieth novel by author Chelsea Quinn Yarbro detailing an episode in the very long life of her benign vampire hero, Count Ferenz Ragoczy Saint-Germain. It would be understandable, after so many books, if the Saint-Germain stories fell into a pattern. Having long outlived the Etruscan civilization of his birth, Saint-Germain is the eternal outsider, making temporary homes for himself until xenophobia and suspicion force him to move on. When he does, he usually must leave behind the female lovers he has trusted and helped. Despite this repeating motif, the Saint-Germain novels have taken a variety of forms. In an interview for Blogcritics in May, 2008, Yarbro said that her hero surprised her in the fifth novel, Tempting Fate, “and he can still surprise me now.” Saint-Germain proves her right in several ways in A Dangerous Climate. I’ve been a fan of Yarbro’s Count for thirty years, and I found this outing one of the most enjoyable in the series.

The foundation of every Saint-Germain novel is a vivid and meticulously researched portrait of one or more times and places in world history, often one that is not commonly presented in fiction. A Dangerous Climate takes us to the year 1704 and the founding of the Russian city of Saint Petersburg (Leningrad from 1924 to 1991) at the mouth of the Neva River on the Baltic sea.

Piotyr Alexeievich Romanov, six feet, eight inches tall and known to history as Tsar Peter I or Peter the Great, reigned from 1689 to 1725. He was an energetic and progressive ruler who forcibly dragged Russia from the Medieval into the early modern age. An absolute monarch, he utilized Draconian tactics to achieve his ends. He even mandated that nobles shave their beards and dress in European style clothing. His tour de force, the city of Saint Petersburg, was built in a decade, thanks to the massive mobilization of workers and resources that Piotyr ordered to labor on it. Enthralled with Dutch culture, Piotyr gave his city a Dutch name, Sankt Piterburkh, and referred to himself by the Dutch name Piter.

A Dangerous Climate is set at the beginning of this endeavor, when the marshes and bogs at the river mouth were still being drained and the city itself was being hammered together as fast as possible from wood, soon to be replaced with stone. Workers, many of them convicts and prisoners of war, died by the hundred in the harsh weather, while upper class artisans, architects, engineers and other specialists enjoyed spartan comforts at best. Piotyr “was determined to create a Baltic Amsterdam,” Yarbro says in her “Author’s Notes” to the novel. But like all pioneers (voluntary and otherwise), the first residents of Sankt Piterburkh lived, as Yarbro puts it, “in conditions that resembled a survival camp in a construction zone.”

In such conditions, law enforcement tends to be less than efficient. Over the course of the Saint-Germain series, we have seen the Count suffer through horrendous physical injuries, torture and beatings, while barely escaping from far worse. Yarbro’s vampires enjoy very few supernatural powers or advantages over mortals. Like the humans they once were, they must evade misadventures through ingenuity and resourcefulness, which often aren’t enough. In most cases we see inevitable disaster looming, but in A Dangerous Climate, the disaster opens the book. In the first chapter, night watchmen discover Saint-Germain right after he’s been beaten so severely that he can’t remember exactly what happened. A living man wouldn’t have survived. Since Saint-Germain does, he spends the rest of the book trying to determine what happened, who wants him dead and when they’ll make another attempt. The opening chapters describe his slow recovery, complicated by his need to conceal how well he’s really doing from the physician and healers who are treating him.

We soon learn another unique aspect to Saint-Germain’s situation in this story: he is not in Sankt Piterburkh as a lone “foreigner.” The Count is visiting in disguise, pretending to be Arpad Arco-Tolvay, Hercegek Gyor, the missing husband of a Polish aristocrat, Zozia, Ksiezna Nisko. A gifted diplomat and spy for the Polish monarch, Augustus II, the Ksiezna must be escorted by a male relative in order to move freely among the foreign dignitaries in Sankt Piterburkh. With the agreement of Augustus II, Saint-Germain has taken on this role, presumably in name only. As the story progresses, their mutual needs draw Saint-Germain and Zozia into a much more intimate–and perilous–involvement than originally planned. Along with all the other concerns raised by Saint-Germain’s unorthodox lovemaking, there is always the chance that the Ksiezna’s real husband could turn up and expose the ruse.

In order to play the role of Zozia’s Hungarian spouse, Saint-Germain is obliged to change some of his normal habits. He abandons his signature style of black, red and white clothing to dress in the lavish fabrics and bright colors fashionable at the time. Guests at the Russian court were expected to feast to excess with their hosts, on pain of committing an unforgivable insult. We have always known that Saint-Germain is unable to consume food or drink–in A Dangerous Climate we find out what happens to him if he does.

Saint-Germain’s beating directly leads to his acquaintance with the independent Ludmilla Borisevna Svarinskaya, a Russian matron who has been rejected by her husband and is running a care house in Sankt Piterburkh. She earns Saint-Germain’s admiration and respect, and eventually a closer relationship. But even as he juggles clandestine liaisons and extremely delicate politics, Saint-Germain is confronted with a crisis in his own affairs. While he has gone underground to impersonate the Ksiezna’s husband, he learns that somebody else is impersonating him. His title, property and estates, under the care of a steward who sends regular reports to him in Sankt Piterburkh, are being claimed by an impostor. Now he has another problem to untangle, without unmasking his real identity to Piotyr and the other residents of Sankt Piterburkh or threatening the Ksiezna’s mission.

A Dangerous Climate features more in the way of complicated puzzles and elaborate maneuverings than raw action. The plot spins out against the finely described backdrop of newborn Sankt Piterburkh–crude, muddy, cold and inhospitable, and yet filled with high born diplomats and ambassadors displaying all the luxury expected in a royal court, because Piotyr insists upon it. By the end of the book, we feel as though we’ve lived in Piotyr’s city ourselves. As often is the case with Yarbro’s novels, we’re also deeply grateful that we don’t live there now. In a 2005 interview with Linda Suzane, Yarbro said, “The Saint-Germain novels are called historical horror novels for a reason: history is horrifying…I try to show the various periods as they saw themselves as much as I can, and to focus on the status and circumstances of women and the constraints of their societies.” In practical terms, this means that the Saint-Germain novels usually have rather grim conclusions, especially when it comes to the fates of the female characters. A Dangerous Climate diverges somewhat from this tendency, another pleasant surprise for me.

A Dangerous Climate takes its place among my favorite of the Saint-Germain novels. Saint-Germain, along with other characters in the books, consistently demonstrates that problems can be resolved without violence even in extremely violent environments. Although he has watched civilizations decline into barbarism countless times, he himself never abandons his own hard-won principles, and he seeks out those individuals who rise above their circumstances by their own inner light. The Saint-Germain novels always contain a note of optimism. No matter how grim the story and how great his loss, Saint-Germain remains determined to survive and look toward the future. In A Dangerous Climate he earns a happier reward for his resilience than he has sometimes seen. Fans of the Count and new readers alike will thoroughly enjoy this book.

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