by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In 1978, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro introduced the world to her vampire, Count Saint-Germain in the novel Hôtel Transylvania. At the time, he was a fantastic anti-hero. A cultured and mysterious man who had all the traits of a vampire, but still understood compassion when faced with an evil greater than the curse he lived under. Since then, Yarbro has published more than a dozen novels about Saint-Germain. In each one, her character spends time in a different historical period, but also loses a little of the vampiric edge which he had when he started. Some of the more recent novels in the series could have been straight historical novels. The Palace, however, was only the second novel about Saint-Germain published, and he still appeared as something of an anti-hero in its pages.
As always, Saint-Germain is the ultimate foreigner in The Palace. He is in a strange city, living at a time which was not the one into which he was born and living among people he can no longer share a race with. In this case, the setting is fifteenth-century Florence, where Saint-Germain's own vile tendencies are more than matched by the fanaticism of the Fra Giralamo Savonarola. Savonarola, an historical figure, managed to wrest control of Florence from the Medici family in the waning years of the fifteenth century. A weak preacher, he nevertheless was able to influence the people and create a series of bonfires of the vanities, destroying works of art and beauty in the name of piety.
Yarbro manages to bring fifteenth century Florence to life, populating it with a variety of characters who are generally well defined, although a few, notably her villains, tend to be two dimensional. This is the result of having to make them appear more evil than her protagonist vampire. In later works, unfortunately, Saint-Germain, himself, becomes more two-dimensional as his vampirism becomes less integral to the plot. In The Palace, however, Yarbro still allows him to occasionally give in to his vampirism.
All of the Saint-Germain stories include a love interest for Yarbro's vampire. Usually a woman who is abused by the more mundane men in her life and seeks the lesser evil of the vampire in her search for solace. In The Palace, this role is played by Estasia, a cousin to the artist Sandro Botticelli. This gives Saint-Germain a reason for coming into contact with the court of the Medicis. When Estasia falls under the spell of Savonarola, a much more insidious spell than Saint-Germain could ever maintain, she brings the vampire to the attention of Savonarola and his cleansing campaign with her accusations and confession.
The Palace is representative of the wonderful historical fiction Yarbro write. The details are accurate and the characters are very much a product of their environment. The supernatural aspects play a large role in the story without tearing it from the realm of the historical. While many of her later books include Saint-Germain's vampirism because it has already been established, it is much more integral to the plot of The Palace. For readers who have been introduced to Saint-Germain late in the series, The Palace demonstrates what he was when Yarbro was still playing with fresh ideas.