Saturday, March 12, 2011

An interview with Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, author of An Embarrassment of Riches - plus giveaway

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's An Embarrassment of Riches, the newest volume of her Saint-Germain cycle of historical fantasy novels, takes place in the Kingdom of Bohemia in 1269-70.  The Count of St. Germain, also known as Rakoczy Ferancsi, has been forced into exile by Bela, King of Hungary, and obeys his will to secure the safety of his fiefdom's people.

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!


  1. I do hope being the first I get lucky this time! Thank you for sharing.


  2. What a fascinating post and interview. I normally do not read 'vampire' or fantasy, but this novel sounds interesting. Thanks for the giveaway.

  3. Great interview. I love Yarbro's vampire books.


  4. I remember reading about St. Germain the Deathless before. What an intriguing series! A fun way to explore history.

  5. I've been reading her books since the 80's. I'd love to have her latest. Thank You.

  6. Haven't read much about Bohemia and this sounds good!

    I'd love to enter if this is international.


  7. I have not heard of this series but it sounds very intriguing. Thanks for the giveaway
    kaiminani at gmail dot com

  8. Anonymous11:42 AM

    Great interview!
    Please enter me in this giveaway.

  9. Sounds great.
    I love her books.

  10. Anonymous3:53 PM

    I hope we have SG stories for many years to come!

  11. Rose Marie5:19 PM

    Thanks for the interview. The Count is an old friend - Always new, but still the same person I've loved forever.

    Rose Marie

  12. MIchelle9:24 AM

    I had not heard of this series before but your post was truly fascinatingand has me quite intriuged. I hope this giveaway is for youe international followers as well. Thank you

  13. Ashley11:29 AM

    I am always looking for historical fiction books that have settings outside of Britain and France. The entire series sounds very interesting!

    Thanks for the giveaway.

  14. This was a fascinating insight into how someone builds a novel. What a great interview, thanks.

  15. Nice interview. I have not read St. Germain in ages, but the last one I did was one I liked. She does have a very interesting take on vampires. Well, here's to hoping I win.

  16. A vampire unstuck in time, racketing all about in history — what a brilliant concept! Just when I thought there could not possibly be anything new under the (vampire) moon, this excellent post has me thirsting to read a new vampire novel. (And in Prague, yet, that most marvelous of medieval cities.)
    Thanks, Sarah!

  17. This interview has brought in a great response - thank you all! I've been trying to branch out in my reading this year and am glad to see others are willing to follow along.

  18. Sounds like an amazing book, and such an interesting interview! Thanks for the chance to win!

  19. Oh wow, such a great interview. Would definitely like to check this book out for myself. Sounds like a good read!

  20. idna mohamed12:39 PM

    I personally have only read the Twilight series when it comes to vampires, which is modern and relatable, aside from having a blood-sucking boyfriend that is. But I find it interesting to perhaps read about vampire from eras I can’t relate to. But still relatable in a way where the emotions and feelings are never something that can change over decades. Overall I think this was a great interview, very enlightening.

  21. I need say that I'm not really understand what the book write before I read the interview. So, I don't want to read it. Now, I keep don't know what it is, but I'm really interesting in what's inside.