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A Dangerous Climate by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In this volume of the story of Count Saint-Germain, he travels to St. Petersburg when it is still a scratch town being built by order of Peter the Great. The latter was what actually made me interested in reading this volume, since I'd never really followed the Saint-Germain series, although I was familiar with it from my association with Jacqueline Lichtenberg's Sime~Gen universe.

I wish I could say that it was a wonderful, compelling book, but I can't. In fact, I kept reading as much to see when stuff would start happening as from any great edge-of-the-seat excitement about the events of the story. Quite honestly, it felt like a random chunk pulled out of a much larger work, because for instance there was very little development of Saint-Germain's vampirism, other than the bit dropped about his not reflecting in mirrors (which drove me nuts because my brain could not figure out how the optics of it would work -- optics being one of the few aspects of my high-school physics class that I actually enjoyed). In fact, he seemed to function pretty much as an ordinary human being, other than being enormously ancient and thus having the wisdom of three thousand years of accumulated life experience to draw upon.

Having not read any of the other Saint-Germain books and knowing them primarily by reputation, I cannot say for certain, but I'm thinking that part of the problem is that her later books are riding on the coattails of her success with the earlier ones. This has been a problem with a number of very successful authors, who have become "too big to edit." Nobody is willing to take the chance of messing with their success, with the result that nobody is willing to mandate changes in their works, even much-needed ones. Thus nobody has been willing to tell her that nothing of significance has happened in this novel and it has really accomplished nothing.

On the other hand, another possibility has occurred to me -- that as she has become successful she has gone from writing self-contained novels to writing a gigantic roman fleuve. The term is French for "a novel that flows," and refers to a very long work which spans multiple volumes.

Here it is useful to distinguish between the intellectual work and the physical artifact. The physical artifact of a book is constrained by several important practicalities. First, it needs to be able to maintain its integrity. If the spine becomes too thick, it will no longer be stable. If one is not very careful reading a really thick paperback book, the spine will tend to bow -- I have seen books of a thousand or more pages in which the spine has literally curved into a C-shape. Treat it roughly enough and the spine can actually crack in the middle, leaving you with two halves of the book and various loose pages.

Second, the book needs to fit comfortably in the average hand. This is less important with non-fiction, which people tend to dip into at need, but for fiction it is absolutely critical because (with the exception of classics assigned as schoolwork) people read it for entertainment. A book that is too awkward becomes a frustrating read instead of an enjoyable one is apt to be set aside, and the person is not likely to pick up another book of that size again.

Finally, as a book becomes thicker, it becomes more expensive to produce -- but this does not necessarily mean that people will be willing to pay that much more to buy it. There is a certain upper price point above which people become reluctant to part with that much money for what is quite honestly a momentary diversion from the cares of daily life. Thus publishers have to limit a book to the size at which what it costs to print balances what they can get for it.

All these factors converge to create a situation in which very large stories tend to be cut into more manageable sections. However, most people don't think in terms of the intellectual work when they decide to buy a book, unless they happen to have been following that particular author's work. As a result, they will tend to assume that any given book they pull off the bookstore shelf is a complete story.

Now we can talk all day about what exactly we mean by terms like "stands on its own" and "complete unto itself," and the problems of spaghetti-strands of story heading off to parts unknown instead of staying neatly on the plate, but the average reader is less worried about technical issues of completeness than this simple consideration: do they get a satisfying story, or do they feel like they've walked into a conversation that's been ongoing, and then get dumped out of it at the end?

As a result I must reluctantly conclude that, while this book will probably be enjoyable for long-time fans of the Count Saint-Germain series, it cannot be recommended to the casual reader, or as a starting point in reading the series.

Review posted February 5, 2009.

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