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Avg. Rating: 3.5
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Seventh in the Saint Germain series.
Or first in the "Olivia" series, depending on how you look at it.
For those unfamiliar with the series, the Saint-Germain series is a series of historical "horror" novels (although the horror element is tenuous at best, based purely on the fact that the main characters are vampires, and "Vampire fiction" is considered a subgenre of "horror fiction"; actually, "Historical Romance" is closer to accurate) in which the main character is the vampire Saint-Germain, who has lived as a vampire since approximately 1500-2000 BCE. In this book, however, the main character is Atta Olivia Clemens, who as a lover of Saint-Germain's became a vampire when she died, back in the time of Nero in Imperial Rome (in the third book of the series, "Blood Games").
This book is set in the time of the Emperor Justinian in 6th Century Byzantium; for those of you not up on the history, this can be most quickly identified as the time of the burning of the library at Alexandria, a minor plot point in this book.
I liked this book, but not as well as most of the previous entries in the series, for a couple of reasons:
1) The element of Olivia's vampiric powers is radically understated in this book; granted, Saint-Germain is subtle in the use of his vampiric powers, but he does have them, and we the reader generally get to see him make use of them several times during the course of a novel; he may show exceptional strength; not just "he had a surprisingly firm grip", but actually breaking the arm of an assailant with little difficulty, or climbing nearly-sheer walls, or moving with exceptional quickness, or sustaining a wound that would be near-fatal to a mortal with minimal effect. Now (again) granted, Olivia, as a woman, must be even MORE circumspect than he about demonstrating such puissance, but surely, we could have seen SOME situation in which she had opportunity to be impressively butch, but it never happens. The "vampire" element is limited to her taking small sips from her lover's neck, her not eating (normal food) and being susceptible to sunlight and water, and needing her native earth in her shoes and mattresses and such. Otherwise, she might as well have been a normal woman. What's the fun in that?
2) Early in the book, we see Olivia struggling unsuccessfully to broach the subject of her vampiric nature with her lover Drosos; he pointedly refuses to pick up on her hints, and she can't find the way to force the issue. Later in the book, we discover that he knows about it, and she knows he knows. Presumably, at some point in between, the issue was dealt with, during a behind-the-scenes moment. Apparently, Yarbro had as much trouble figuring out how to address the subject as Olivia did, and decided to duck the issue. Unforgivably sloppy for a writer of her abilities, really. That's a major enough plot point that it really MUST be addressed more directly than it was.
Olivia, vampire heroine, is a spin-off of St. Germain series
Those who already know that they like vampire novels, anything at all that features a vampire, can skip this review, and likewise, those who hate the whole idea of vampires can skip it. But for those trying to decide whether or not to read more of this genre, or whether the one vampire novel you've already read was a fluke, it may help if we have some ways to categorize these novels. Thus: BunRab's Standard Vampire Elements. First, most authors of vampire novels approach from one of the main genres of genre fiction; thus their background may be primarily in romance, or in science fiction/fantasy, or in murder mysteries, or in horror. Second, many vampire novels come in series; knowing whether this is one of a series, and where in the series it falls, may be helpful. Then we have some particular characteristics: - Is the vampire character (or characters) a "good guy" or a "bad guy"? Or are there some of each? - Are there continuing characters besides the vampire, through the series? - Are there other types of supernatural beings besides vampires? - Can the vampire stand daylight under some circumstances, or not stand daylight at all? - Does the vampire have a few other supernatural characteristics, many other supernatural characteristics, or none other than just being a vampire? (E.g., super strength, change into an animal, turn invisible) - Does the vampire have a regular job and place in society, or is being a vampire his or her entire raison d'etre? - Does the vampire literally drink blood, or is there some other (perhaps metaphorical) method of feeding? - Is sex a major plot element, a minor plot element, or nonexistent? - Is the entire vampire feeding act a metaphor for sex, part of a standard sex act, or unrelated to sex? - Is the story set in one historical period, more than one historical period, or entirely in the present day? - Does the story have elements of humor, or is it strictly serious? - Is the writing style good, or is the writing just there to manage to hold together the plot and characters?
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's series about the vampire St. Germain starts from the historical romance genre, and is a continuing series. Olivia, the heroine of this book, is a woman of ancient Rome whom St. Germain has turned into a vampire; this book is one of several written about her rather than about St. Germain. St. Germain and Olivia are definitely good guys, using the knowledge they've gained in hundreds of years of living to help others. There are a few characters that continue from book to book besides these two. Ghouls are the only other supernatural characters who appear in these books. Olivia can stand daylight with the right preparations. She has unusual strength, but not limitless, and unusual wisdom, but there are no other overt magic powers. Olivia has an occupation of being an aristocrat and landowner, insofar as that was a full-time occupation through most of history. Yarbro's vampires do not literally drink blood; they feed on emotions, usually during erotic experiences, but sex is nonetheless only a minor plot element, rare and very discreet. The series as a whole covers 3000 years, from ancient Egypt to the modern day; each book is set in a span of a particular period, usually 20-30 years. The writing is serious, but not self-important; the writing quality is excellent, and Yarbro's abilities as an author qualify these books as literature rather than "merely" genre fiction.
This particular book is set in the Roman empire of Justinian, as run from Constantinople, or Byzantium, in 545 C.E. The major elements of conflict come from the tension between the remnants of Rome, the remnants of Greek civilization, and the influence of the Near East and even the Orient. Political treachery is the order of the day. Olivia's bondsman, Niklos, is a hero of major importance; it is thanks to Niklos' saving Olivia's life that we can look forward to the next book in the series. Because this is one of the later-written books in the series about St. Germain and Olivia, it might be helpful to a newcomer to read a couple of the others first. _Blood Games_, the book set in Nero's Rome, is the one in which St. Germain first meets, and "converts," Olivia; it would be a good one to read as a preliminary to reading _Flame in Byzantium_.
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