In literature, films, and television virtually choked with vampires, Yarbro’s Count Saint-Germain remains the suede, the elite, the unique. You won’t find Saint-Germain gnawing on bloody kills, wallowing in gratuitous violence, or throwing blatant sexuality around either. No. His vampiric encounters are tastefully erotic, and the very detail that the Count is a vampire is not necessarily expounded upon at much length. Where details are given, they are treated with literary finesse — and Yarbro is a master of refinement. Perhaps renowned author Neil Gaiman said it best: “Before the world fell in love with vampires, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint-Germain was the wisest, noblest, finest vampire of them all. When all the fashionable vampires have been staked and forgotten, I am certain that Saint-Germain will still be walking through history, thrilling and delighting those of us who love the dark fantastic.” Fine words, brother. And though there are well over a dozen books in the Saint-Germain series — Night Pilgrims is the latest in the franchise, just published by Tor in July 2013 — the story lines and characters stand alone easily enough to pick and choose among them. The amount of the Count’s personal history varies from book to book, however, and one of the small gripes I have about Night Pilgrims is, having only read two of the novels, there is precious little offered here.
Night Pilgrims does certainly display the painstakingly astute historical period detail for which Yarbro is famous. Here the year is 1225, and the exiled Saint-Germain finds himself at an Egyptian Coptic monastery but ordered, with all foreigners, to leave as Genghis Khan makes his way toward the region. A timely letter requests his aid to act as translator, guide, and herbal physician for a group of Christian pilgrims wishing to journey to holy sites as far away as Ethiopia, and the Count reluctantly agrees.
The penitents, whose reasons for the trip vary from demonic possession to acquiring black market religious relics, are headed up by an impetuous ex-Crusader seeking to purge his hands of innocent blood. The dangers the troupe faces are palpable: impassable terrain, meager provisions, lack of defense, and cutthroat robbers. They are sitting ducks — small bands of pilgrims are frequently murdered, taken hostage, or sold as slaves. And internally, each individual is under careful scrutiny to make sure they display the appropriately penitential demeanor on danger of stoning or abandonment. The reward for all this? Supposedly, redemption. Faith and the omnipotent grip of the Church provide the impetus driving the heart of the novel, most often to the point of superstitious absurdity. So throughout, Saint-Germain finds himself continually trying to overcome the illogical religious zeal of the pilgrims with common sense: “Surely God won’t mind if you take time to treat your wound on your foot,” etc. But perhaps most unfortunate for our poor Count, there are only three women in the whole group — and one is a raving mad nun — scarce pickings for his yearnings or sustenance. Of the trio, the most obvious choice is Bondame Margrethe from Aquitaine, a woman making the grueling pilgrimage to restore her husband’s failing health, but she’s under the relentless eye of the attending priest to remain chaste. What’s a vampire to do?
Here comes my second small gripe –and I almost feel guilty making it, because Night Pilgrims is a fine adventure story — but Margethe is a cardboard cutout, the encounter between her and the Count formulaic, and the details not very interesting compared to the rest of the story. Now, I do love Yarbro’s books and have enjoyed them immensely. If my gripes sound harsh, they are in no way meant to discourage readers from taking on Night Pilgrims. There’s plenty of action here, not to mention lush history. But among the Saint-Germain novels, this isn’t my first choice. Newer is not necessarily better.