In the medieval and early-modern traditions of storytelling, what counted was not the originality of a story, but the skill with which it was told. Audiences disliked the unfamiliar, and a story that was not connected with well-known characters was likely to be greeted with indifference, no matter how novel its premise (which is why there are so many stories set in and around King Arthur's court).
This tradition continues to linger in genre fiction. Certain conventions are expected by readers of high fantasy, for instance, or of mysteries, or for that matter of romance novels. Writers can play with those standards, or manipulate readers' expectations (as Joel Rosenberg does in his Guardians of the Flame series of fantasy novels, for instance), or turn them on their heads, but audiences get very uncomfortable with writers who ignore the accrued conventions of the genre in which they are writing.
By this standard, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's new novel is certainly a success. This is a story she has told before, but in Better in the Dark she retells it exceptionally well. Readers familiar with the vampire Count Saint-Germain will know the outcome of the story from the foreboding opening pages of the book; there are few surprises here. Saint-Germain continues to be a voice of civility in an intolerant, hostile culture, troubled but never surprised at man's inhumanity to man (and greater inhumanity to woman).
The setting is Saxony in 937 AD. The novel opens with the aftermath of a brutal execution-the drowning of a raped woman for being unfaithful to her husband. Yarbro's story continues with the same level of chilling intensity and matter-of-fact brutality throughout. It's never in doubt that most of the characters will come to bad ends, because there is little else any of them can hope for in life. Even religion offers little solace, since the harshest brutalities come from the hands of monks determined to enforce their own vision of a cruel Christian god, while at the same time eradicating all traces of the Old Religions.
Historical fiction plays to all the strengths of Yarbro's writing: her eye for telling detail, her ability to convey emotions and tensions while at the same time maintaining the illusion of distance (the letters at the end of each chapter are particularly successful), her cold-blooded treatment of her own characters. Not for the first time, she has picked a particularly resonant period to write about, and her ability to bring the Dark Ages to life is what makes Better in the Dark work. This is a familiar story, very reminiscent of the less-successful first half of Yarbro's 1981 novel Path of the Eclipse as well as elements in some of her other historical vampire fiction; Better in the Dark is, in other words, everything that Yarbro's readers would expect it to be.
Students who have taken my fantasy class will certainly be familiar with my views on the Medieval storytelling tradition, but at the time, this was pretty new ground for me.
I didn't know Quinn very well at the time I wrote this (she's on the West Coast and I'm in the Northeast), and I knew she had a reputation for prickliness, but we got to be friends for a while after this was written. I eventually packaged and edited three books by Quinn, only two of which ever came out from HarperCollins. The books took a long, unhappy road to publication, and while early in the process we talked a lot, and she invited me to speak at the World Dracula Convention in L.A., by the time the third book was completed, she was no longer speaking to me. They're terrific, if very dark books, though. Hopefully someday the third one will see print.