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Monday, October 19, 2015

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro on Sedate, Cultured Society

A Roman room for entertaining visitors,
courtesy of the Museum of London, England

In Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's novel A Flame in Byzantium, one of the things that surprised me was how ordinary her protagonist Olivia seems. Becoming a vampire has granted her a long life, and she has to be careful when she visits others' homes, or attends parties, that she kindly rebuffs all attempts to offer her food or drink. So she excuses her non-indulgence with protestations as to her "delicate constitution." As a vampire, she seems to exist on blood, but this is a minor point for most of the novel. Drosos makes mention of her biting him when they make love, but as an army officer, he's stationed outside Constantinople for most of the story. She's carted boxes of her "native earth" from her villa in Rome, and she somehow draws strength from this. But really, little attention is paid to her vampirism throughout the five hundred pages of the story. More than anything, she hungers for the affection and love of Drosos, and when she realizes that the tide of public opinion is turning against her, and that she should flee Constantinope, she stays behind in the hopes of being reunited with Drosos. Aside from her affection, she regards the blood she has taken from him as a bond between them, one that she would gladly repay by sharing the rest of her life with him.

In introducing General Belisarius, and focusing on his struggle to hold Rome against the Ostrogoth invaders, I had anticipated battle scenes on the order of JRR Tolkien or Robert E Howard. Given the politics and undercurrents sweeping through Byzantine politics, I expected to find the streets of Constantinople awash in blood, as happened several times in HBO's "Rome" TV series. Yet with a few exceptions, any fighting, deaths, or tortures occurred off-the-page, and were merely remarked on later in the narrative, or by one of the characters. What Yarbro instead focuses on is the customs and protocols the characters must observe, and how people of various strata in society interact with each other. So when something terrible happens, for the most part we don't witness it. Instead of the gritty and graphic struggle-for-life I remember from False Dawn, A Flame in Byzantium gives us a sense of how these people lived out their everyday lives. We see what they eat and drink, the comforts that surround them, and those they interact with. Along the way, we witness how the actions and choices affect others, or eventually rebound against them. But aside from a few scenes, the story unfolds in a cultured and sedate manner, more like the PBS adaptation of "I Claudius" than HBO's "Rome." 

But then, we all like wise, cultured, and loving protagonists. Even if they are vampires.

Dragon Dave

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