A journey is intrinsically boring. Even those which encompass high degrees discomfort and peril can still be extremely tedious. There are only so many ways of describing preparing to march, the hike and camping for the night and when a journey continues for several months, freshness quickly runs out. That doesn’t stop some authors giving step by step accounts. Any journey is a quest, a pilgrimage. There has to be a reason for going and a hope of achieving something at the end or the voyagers might well have stayed at home. It is also, by the nature of the beast, episodic. Most days will be much the same as the ones on either side of it with the points of interest and excitement happening at intervals. The trick is to find a way of telling the story of the journey in a way that keeps the reader travelling with the characters.
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s best known character is the Count Saint-Germain and this is her twenty-sixth excursion into his long life. Saint-Germain is a centuries-old vampire who has developed ways of existing among the humans he depends on for sustenance. This novel, ‘Night Pilgrims’, starts in 1225 when, under the name of Sidi Sandjer’min, he and his servant Ruthier (known as Rogerian in other novels) are staying at a Coptic monastery close to the Nile to the south of Alexandria. He has earned the respect of some of the monks for his skill as a healer. It is a place that Christian pilgrims frequently pass through on their way to the holy shrines at Egypt’s southern extremities. Their reasons for travel are varied but often involve seeking some kind or penance or intercession from God for a stricken family member. Occasionally, the commercially-minded join a pilgrimage in search of holy relics they can sell for gain on their return.
The political situation is in flux, as the countries of the Middle East Europe watch the advance of the Mongols with trepidation. The Sultan of Egypt is increasing the size of his army. Preferred for the front-line are the men of Christian villages and as he doesn’t trust any foreigners he is closing down the country to all but the most devout pilgrims. When a group of pilgrims arrives at the monastery, Sandjer’min decides it is expedient to take up the offer to accompany them south as a translator and a healer. One of their number has been badly sunburnt and, even though he is not expected to survive the rigours of the journey, he is not to be left behind.
The time of year for the party to travel coincides with the annual inundation of the Nile, so that only the first part of the journey can be undertaken by boat. The next stage must take them through the desert at the height of summer, so travelling must be done at night. This suits Sandjer’min well. An important part of a series as long as this is to set the rules at the beginning and stick to them. The vampire has no reflection, relying on Ruthier to shave him and make sure his clothing is adjusted properly. Running water and sunlight sap his energy, he does not burst into flames, but as long as he has some of his native soil in his boots he is able to manage. Thus, although others are suspicious of him, he is a foreigner after all, Saint-Germain can pass among his fellow pilgrims during daylight and voyage on the Nile. Most of the time, Sandjer’min keeps a low profile, following the instructions of Sieur Horembaud, the leader of the group and an ex-Templar Knight. He doesn’t seek trouble though it usually finds him. Here the problems are caused by the terrain and distant politics as well as the diversity of characters in this particular party. Occasionally, a plot development can be foreseen but generally the tribulations that occur are a result of these factors.
To get around the problems of this being a journey across a monotonous landscape, the narrative is interspersed by letters, which may or may not have reached their destination, but which shed illumination of the motives of the pilgrims and the political situation in Europe and the Middle East. The technique is very effective, allowing the action to concentrate on those incidents that either move the plot along or show aspects of the pilgrim’s characters.
This is a very well-researched novel with a great feeling of authenticity. There are some readers who might object to the history lesson that precedes the novel itself but, personally, I find these snippets of knowledge fascinating and essential to understanding the pressures that create and motivate the pilgrims.
Very few series of novels can be read in any order as threads often run through them but as Yarbro herself jumps around in history for successive novels each volume does stand alone. I have no qualms about recommending this novel to anyone who has an interest in history, good literature or anyone who has yet to be charmed by the Count Saint-Germain.
(pub: TOR/Forge. 409 page small hardback. Price: $29.99 (US), $34.50 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-3400-8)
check out website: www.tor-forge.com