Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Night Blooming (Warner, 2002)
This is a book that should be fascinating -- it has all the right elements; an intriguing cast of characters, an interesting plot, and an unusual slant on history -- but somehow it falls flat for me.
The setting is carefully described, with a long foreword that explains a great deal about the time of Charlemagne -- and I believe this is where my disenchantment with the book begins to arise. I feel that a story should explain odd terms and reveal historical details on its own. While Ms. Yarbro definitely knows her stuff, and has some truly interesting information in the "Author's Note," six pages of a history and language lesson before I even get to the story puts me off.
The characters are well thought out. Gynethe Mehaut -- an albino whose bloodred eyes aren't the only things about her that disturb everyone she meets -- is a really interesting concept, and the reactions of the people around her are very true to life. Hiernom Rakoczy, a vampire who has "lived" for over two thousand years, is also carefully crafted with an fine eye to the details of how a vampire would manage to pass among mortals for thousands of years. The story dances between the two characters, now showing the life of Gynethe Mehaut as arguments rage over whether she's a demon or a saint, now showing the life of Rakoczy as he seeks to avoid that same scrutiny while simultaneously befriending the lonely young woman, now skittering through the reactions and plots of various clergy trying to use the unusual pair. It's a great concept, but the concept just wasn't enough. I still developed little or no sympathy for most of the characters. There's a sense that the author is forcing the characters to suit a preset plot, not allowing them to run their own lives.
The story itself begins with a letter "from Alciun of York, Bishop... to Hiernom Rakoczy...." The letter imperiously summons Rakoczy to assist a mapping project in Tours, warning that "It would be most ungracious of you to refuse this generous offer... Karlus has a long memory and a longer arm...." The stiff, florid writing style sounds true to what would have been written by a Bishop at the time, and the mixed threatening/complimentary tone caught my attention.
Unfortunately, it didn't last. Moving into Chapter One, the story begins its rambling journey, often seeming to lose track of itself before abruptly returning to the main idea. There are so many things going on and the perspective shifts so frequently, I don't know who or what the focus of the story is.
The descriptions are carefully crafted and very detailed, but just as I began to relax and enjoy a scene, something would always jar me out of it. For example:
"... There will be new bread and cheese in your cell when you are done."Fatalistic? About a routine meal? I wound up feeling as if the writer was trying too hard to show how much she knew about each character and the time she was writing about. In other spots, items are detailed that aren't particularly relevant to the story. The letters at the beginning and end of the chapters add ambiance but are not always directly connected to the rest of the story -- I had to force myself to read them after a few chapters.
"As there is every morning," said Gynethe Mehaut fatalistically.
"As there is every morning," Priora Iditha agreed.
I came away from reading this book with a feeling of frustration and vague sadness -- frustration that I'd had to struggle to get through it, sadness because it should have been a great read. There are some wonderful parts where the writing comes alive; if about a third of the information had been cut out, this would have been a much more engaging book.
This is a series -- and author -- I'll keep an eye on, in case the writing fulfills its promise and distills through time and experience into something great, but I won't be recommending Night Blooming to anyone.