Sunday, September 25, 2011
Reveiw: "The Palace", by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
Chelsea Quinn writes, among other things, vampire novels. But these are vampire novels with a twist: her vampire, the Count Saint Germain, is the good guy. So, if you like your vampires menacing, cruel, and villainous, you probably want to give The Palace (St. Martin's Press, 1978; 376 pages) a miss. But, if you like good writing, a great story, well-researched historical backgrounds, and vampires that don't sparkle, you'll likely enjoy Yarbro's series of vampire novels, most of which feature the Count.
The Palace is the second in the series, which has grown to a number of volumes since she wrote the first installment, Hotel Transylvania, which is also very good. But The Palace, which is the second book in the series, is my favorite, and the one I've gone back to read most often since I discovered these novels quite by accident. I was at the library, and just cruising the fiction stacks and pulled it off the shelf and read that it is set in Renaissance Florence. I'm a huge Michelangelo geek, so that was enough to get me to check the book out of the library and give it a chance; the fact that it was a vampire story was of secondary importance to me.
The story begins as Saint Germain, who is a friend to Lorenzo de'Medici, the unofficial ruler of Florence, is building a palace in Florence. But Lorenzo the Magnificent's health is failing, and Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican monk whose fire and brimstone preaching comes with a heavy dose of guilt and prophecy, is starting to hold sway over more and more of Florence's population. Savonarola has predicted both that Lorenzo will die, and when, and that the French will come and try to rule the city. When both predictions come true, Savonarola is on his way to several years as the de facto dictator of the city.
This development makes it more and more difficult for Saint Germain to live in Florence, because along with more and more rigorous religious laws, foreigners are less and less tolerated. Finally, after the sister of Sandro di Filipepi, known to the art world as Botticelli, with whom Saint Germain has had an ongoing liaison, confesses her sins in a way that implicates the Count in her debaucheries, Saint Germain must flee the city. He returns, posing as his own nephew, to rescue his student, Demetrice, who has come to live with Saint German after the death of Lorenzo and because of her ties to him has been accused of heresy.
It is worth reading The Palace for the wonderful writing and exciting story alone. But besides good storytelling and history that is impeccably researched and woven into the story without the huge passages of info-dumping that so many historical novels suffer from, Yarbro has inserted into the story a major subtext regarding the dangers of excessive and fanatic religious devotion. She explores, without sacrificing story or storytelling, the dangers that can come when religious fervor overtakes good sense and mixes with politics.
Savonarola is presented as a sort of a Renaissance version of a televangelist, preaching doom and gloom and prophesying the end of the world, or at least the end of Florence. He insists that any pleasure is vanity and offensive in the sight of God. He urges detailed confessions of sins, especially those of a sexual nature. He demands that the citizens of the city destroy anything that isn't strictly utilitarian, that they wear drab plain clothes, and that they attend church and strictly observe all feast days. If you are not familiar with the career of Savonarola, as I was not when I first read The Palace, Yarbro's portrayal of him threatens to read like an anachronistic parody. It is not.
Long after my first reading of The Palace, I wrote a paper and did a class presentation on the career of Savonarola. As part of my research for that project, I read translations of some of the sermons Savonarola gave in Florence during the period in which the novel takes place, and the words that Yarbro puts in his mouth sound very much like the records of his sermons read. There is no exaggeration there, as far as I can see; he really was that fanatic, that judgmental, that full of fervor.
It is a mark of Yarbro's skill as a researcher and a writer that she has managed to insert this subtext, this social criticism, into The Palace without making it read like an historical treatise or a propaganda piece on the dangers of fanaticism of any sort. It is all integral to the story.
I will warn you of one thing. If you do read The Palace, there is a strong possibility that you will find yourself looking for other books in the series. I've not liked all of Yarbor's Saint Germain books as much as I like The Palace, but I've not regretted the time I've spent reading any of them.