Sent to Prague to create jewels for Bela's granddaughter, Queen Kunigunde of Bohemia, while her husband is off fighting to expand his realm, Rakoczy hopes to live a quiet life at his mansion. Unfortunately, he finds himself the object of unwanted attention. His obvious wealth, good looks, and bachelor status attract the notice of several of Kunigunde's lonely, ambitious ladies-in-waiting, who seek to manipulate him to their own ends.
This is the first entry I've read in Yarbro's long-running series – this is the 24th volume – and it won't be the last. Traditional vampire stories tend not to entice me (did I mention that St. Germain was a vampire?) but I couldn't resist picking up a book set in such an intriguing locale as medieval Prague. For readers who aren't especially attracted by blood, however, there's no reason to be concerned. The fearsome aspect of the novel derives not from St. Germain's actions but from the milieu where he finds himself.
In An Embarrassment of Riches, Rakoczy faces threats from Rozsa of Borzod, a noblewoman who blackmails him into a sexual liaison; from powerful churchmen wary of his alchemical skills; and from King Bela, whose spies will denounce him if he violates his terms of exile. The richly described setting of 13th-century Bohemia comes alive with its elegance and dark undercurrents of danger, and St. Germain is a cultured and compelling hero. Each of the books can stand alone, so if you find yourself yearning to explore settings as diverse as 6th-century Shanghai, 14th-century India, or Peter the Great's Russia, give this series a try. The author's website has a historical chronology as well as background on St. Germain himself and details on how she's managed to subvert the vampire stereotype.
There's a giveaway opportunity at the end, so please read on...
What drew you into setting your new novel in 13th-century Bohemia?
It was a place I'd written relatively little about, and it wasn't like the highly romanticized view of Medieval France and England so often found in historical fiction.
Interspersed within the main storyline, you include the text of many letters sent to parties mentioned in the book, listing who the scribe was, the language, medium, the time took it time the letters to arrive, and even whether they arrived at all. How did you decide upon using this technique in your novels?
I used it in Hotel Transylvania as a means of avoiding the dreaded expository lump. I found it provided a great way to build characters as well, and it's been in every Saint-Germain book since.
Many historical writers – some at their editors' suggestions – use terms more familiar to English-speaking readers when it comes to lesser known settings, but refreshingly, you've made a point of using those found in contemporary records: Konig and Konige (for King and Queen), Comes (Count), Episcopus (Bishop), even Praha (Prague), etc. How do you strike a balance between the desire for authenticity and accessibility to your readers?
Not all the editors who have worked on the series over the years have been enchanted with my determination to use as much period language as possible, but I feel it is a good way to keep the reader in the period and in the story. In An Embarrassment of Riches this was made more complicated than in some other novels in the series because of the constant intermix of Bohemian, German, and Hungarian. By opting for mainly Bohemian usage, I hoped to keep the sense of place a strong element in the book.
The outfits worn by the characters are vividly presented; when they appear in a scene, you describe the color and fabric of their bleihaut, chainse, braccae, etc. Do you take a special interest in historical costume?
Yes, I do, for several reasons: clothes tend to be a statement of class in the Medieval world – and still is, to some degree. Also, everyone reading knows about clothes, so connecting with the experience with the characters through clothes seems to be easier for most readers than trying to connect through table utensils or window coverings. Most of the time I use modern terminology for things like horse gear, furniture, and household equipment because if I didn't, I'd have to explain so much, the action would slow and the reader wouldn't stay hooked in the story.
I found it fascinating that St. Germain's wealth and attractiveness to women caused more problems for him at court than his ability to create jewels via alchemical means. Could you describe more about the beliefs in alchemy at the time?
That's a topic that could fill several volumes, but to thumbnail it – alchemy is the ancestor of chemistry (it's in the name: Alchemy means the Egyptian study, and so does chemistry, Khem being the ancient Egyptian name for Egypt), but over time it also became tangential to metallurgy. Alchemy was concerned with transformation – of base metals to noble ones: gold, silver, and electrum; the transformation of earth into jewels; the transformation of moldy bread to the sovereign remedy; and the transformation of an ordinary man or woman into something more. Since the historical Comte de Saint-Germain was an alchemist, it was irresistible to include his study of alchemy in his fictional character.
The three women who pursue St. Germain – Rozsa, Imbolya, and Iliska – are different personality-wise and in terms of how they emotionally respond to him. Is there any whose character you enjoyed writing more than the others?
When I'm working on a book, I love them all. Ask me in a year or two, and maybe I can tell you more about them. I can say that Rozsa was the most exhausting to write about of the three.
In a past interview I saw on your website (from Stealth, from 2000), you mentioned that St. Germain prefers to take female lovers, because they're less apt to confuse power and sex. In An Embarrassment of Riches, I wouldn’t say Konige Kunigunde’s ladies in waiting confuse the two exactly, but they manipulate one to obtain the other, and it gets him in trouble. What inspired you to choose this as one of the themes for this book?
The tendency to think of Medieval noblewomen as having more rights and privileges than they did has been a mainstay of historical fiction for decades, when in fact, even noblewomen were little more than property in most of the contexts of their lives. One of the few places they had a bit of liberty was a Queen's Court, where the Queen had some real authority – in the case of eastern Europe, even the queens were severely constrained in the expression of that autonomy. The two ways women could gain a little leverage in their lives was through sex and position; the three women in this novel each take advantage of it in their own way.
Given the form of nourishment that St. Germain takes, do you find yourself working around writing scenes where it might look odd for him to avoid eating or drinking in public?
In some of the books, yes, in others, no. It all has to do with the attitude of the society in which he finds himself has toward strangers. Occasionally it gets him into trouble, as when he encountered Peter the Great in A Dangerous Climate.
Creating a period mindset is so important in historical fiction of any type. How do you achieve this while keeping St. Germain’s character consistent over a span of two-plus millennia?
Actually, it's four millennia and counting, and, in fact, he does change over time. The way he is in his recollections in Out of the House of Life is different than he is in Midnight Harvest, and not just because he drives cars and uses the telephone. That's an aspect of the character I leave up to him, and so far he's never played me false, though he keeps a lot of secrets. I do tend to treat setting as a tertiary character in the story, and that helps to keep the focus of the period on plumb.
[I don't believe I forgot the pub details earlier, so I'm adding them in...] An Embarrassment of Riches was published in March by Forge at $29.99/$34.50 in Canada, hardbound, 384pp. To enter to win a copy, please leave a comment on this post. Deadline Friday, March 25th. Good luck!