I'm a huge fan of the urban fantasy genre which features all manner of paranormal beings alongside more human ones, and combines together elements of horror and fantasy with just a dash of romance. I feel that the vampire has been done to death, however, mainly because of the plethora of teen-vampire romances (no names, no pack drill) which have flooded the market. However, in my opinion, one vampire towers above the rest and his name is Ragoczy Saint-Germain.
If you've never heard of Saint-Germain, it's no surprise. Set alongside more modern vampires, you'd fail to spot him in a crowd because this vampire is moulded from a far different clay and is more likely to be found in company with Anne Rice's Lestat than with the horde of sexy, tortured heroes currently jostling for shelf space in the bookshops.
Saint-Germain is the creation of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro an American writer and author of over seventy novels across various genres, although she mainly writes sci-fi/fantasy but her Saint-Germain novels are what have earned her many plaudits from the literary world. This series isn't urban fantasy per se but effortlessly marries horror and fantasy with history and, indeed, there was a real Count Saint-Germain living in eighteenth century France around whom there were many whispered rumours of occultism and who was the inspiration for this series.
Reading the novels from the Saint-Germain Cycle presents any new reader with a problem: Where to begin. The first novel to feature Ragoczy Saint-Germain was published in 1978 and was set in France during the reign of Louis XV and is based on the real Saint-Germain. The novel proved such a success and it was clear that Ragoczy's story wasn't over, so Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (henceforth CQY) decided to continue telling the story of Ragoczy and over the last thirty years has now produced twenty-four books in this series. These books jump backwards and forwards through various time periods from pre-Revolutionary France to Renaissance Italy to Ancient China and forward through the centuries to the period between the two World Wars. Blood Games, which was the third book of the series, is chronologically the first, although Saint-Germain has featured in a few short stories and novellas covering his early life and his 'making' as a vampire.
These books are widely available from various booksellers and often at very low prices.
Rome during the time of Nero was not a safe place and anybody, even caesars and vampires can find themselves in very grave danger. The foreigner and successful businessman, Ragoczy Saint-Germain Franciscus has managed to keep himself safe so far in this den of iniquity but all that begins to change, firstly when he meets Atta Olivia Clemens, the brutalised wife of the powerful senator, Cornelius Justus Silius and then things go from bad to worse when he later helps Rogerian, a slave. Saint-Germain's interference does not go unpunished and he finds himself sentenced to appear in the arena at the Circus Maximus as entertainment for the Roman masses.
As a devotee of Lindsay Davis's Falco novels, I picked this book up at the library because of its setting in Ancient Rome and from almost the first page I was hooked. This book is not a light and fluffy read but an intelligent recreation of Ancient Rome in all its bloody horror and that, coupled with a strong plotline and excellently realised characters make this a totally unputdownable read.
CQY's writing style is literary by which I mean it's well-researched and scholarly and doesn't talk down to the reader but expects them to have the same level of vocabulary and erudition as herself which cuts down on long explanations and gets right into the heart of the story immediately.
The Rome of Nero is beautifully rendered here though there is much which isn't beautiful. However much we may admire the ingenuity of Ancient Romans there's no escaping the fact that they were a cruel and violent people and some of CQY's descriptions of events, especially taking place in the Circus Maximus, are a little stomach churning at times. Having visited Rome and the Circus Maximus, I felt her descriptions really brought this arena to life. Standing in the Colosseum, it's easy to empathise with the poor souls who faced their final hours there but the Circus Maximus is a much larger arena and not as well preserved. Many people think it was reserved solely for chariot racing but that isn't the case and it's believed more people actually lost their lives there facing lions and crocodiles and other lethal creatures than did in the Colosseum.
One thing I liked about CQY's ancient Rome is that she doesn't sanitise it at all and all the characters, including Saint-Germain, behave in a wholly appropriate way, accepting slavery as a fact of life along with the violence and death which was a daily reality of their lives. That being said, Saint-Germain is a humane man. He's been alive for centuries, almost from the dawn of man, and in that time he's seen every horror and perversion that mankind can devise and I feel that perhaps his character is a metaphor for man's moral conscience. His vampirism is almost incidental and offers CQY the chance to present an object view of the period about which she's writing.
Rogaczy, the man, is still capable of deep feelings and it's not long before his sympathy for Olivia turns to love. The scenes between the two are sensuous and erotic without being overly descriptive or penetrative because Saint-Germain doesn't function that way anymore, which is perfectly feasible given that vampires no longer have blood flowing through their veins. Saint-Germain derives his pleasure from giving pleasure to others and in taking blood. As he says "There is always blood. What in you, what part of you is truly yourself, if not your blood? My only gratification comes through your own."
It's impossible not to like Saint-Germain and pity him, too. He's been alive and alone for so long and is destined to lose all those he loves unless he turns them into creatures like himself which he's reluctant to do without very good reason because he knows the eternal loneliness that comes with vampirism. He's a kind man and is held in great affection by his slaves and especially by his body servant, Aumtehoutep, an Egyptian who left his homeland and family to serve Saint-Germain.
Atta Olivia Clemens is also a very sympathetic character. She's been horribly brutalised by her husband who is everything we know of Roman cruelty rolled into one person. She's endured his abuses for years and so finds Saint-Germain's more pure form of love utterly irresistible. During the course of the book, Olivia grows in stature and understanding from the desperate young wife into a woman of independence who is mistress of her own destiny. I don't think it's giving too much away to reveal that she goes on to have a short series of her own.
Olivia's husband, along with Nero and the many Romans both free born and slave, are all fully rounded characters bringing a sense of breathtaking realism to this story and never once did I feel that CQY stepped out of time and place, so much so that it was frequently hard to drag myself back into the twenty-first century.
As you've probably gathered from this review, I loved this book. I came late to the series and I'm glad I did because it's given me the opportunity to get to know Ragoczy Saint-Germain as he's lived his life through all the centuries. It isn't necessary to read the books chronologically because that isn't how they were written but that's the order in which I've read them. As the series progresses, there are characters from previous novels who reappear and, of course, more knowledge is gained about Saint-Germain himself, but each book can be read and enjoyed as a standalone.
Don't think that this book is for only for women either; the story is likely to appeal to either gender. If you enjoy world history (CQY doesn't confine herself to Europe but covers the globe) and enjoy your novels laced with horror and fantasy with just a soupçon of romance, you will thoroughly enjoy not only this book but the entire Saint-Germain series. I recommend it to you wholeheartedly.