At Dragon*Con this year, I picked up a lot of book recommendations, mostly because I went to a lot more panels dealing with books than previous years. While I’ll get to most of them in time, both here on the Literary Horizon and reading wise, I thought I’d spotlight two titles that leaped out at me (and one that’s currently on my desk, rented from the library)–both speculative fiction, obviously.
A Flame in Byzantium by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
Yarbro’s romantic, colorful cycle of historical horror novels (Hotel Transylvania, Blood Games) focuses this time on Olivia, the noble Roman lady who became a lover of the vampire Count Sanct’ Germain in the time of Nero. Hundreds of years later, in the sixth century, Olivia is forced to flee Rome as war flares. In the more repressive and vigilantly Christian city of Constantinople she is suspect as a foreigner and an unmarried woman of wealth. When her patron, General Belisarius, falls out of favor with Emperor Justinian, she has no protection from the zealous Court Censor. Although the fact that Olivia is a vampire makes little difference until the end, the book has a real, cumulative power as a portrait of an intelligent, cosmopolitan woman caught in a paranoid web of politics and religious persecution. Particularly striking are its connections between the personal and the historical, the most moving of which is the reaction to Justinian’s ordering the burning of the Library of Alexandria, with its thousands of irreplacable ancient texts.
It is always a treat for me when a book is old enough that the only cover available is the one from the eighties–the skull! The green eyeshadow! The hair! While, for some reason, A Flame in Byzantium isn’t written down in my usual notebook, I’m fairly sure (and I have a bad memory, so take this with a grain of salt) that this came from a panel where vampires popped up. I think what happened is that Yarbro was recommended, and when I saw historical vampire fiction on her Wikipedia bibliography, I immediately gravitated to the few stand alone novels, as I must start a series at the beginning, regardless of whether or not it matters. But still–a lady vampire in Byzantium as politics start getting dirtier? I’m intrigued!
Of course, older and less known novels pose a problem when it comes to finding online reviews for it, as the original publicity tour was print only, if at all, and they can be overlooked when it comes to book bloggers. It garners an average of four stars on Amazon, with reviewers praising the historical accuracy and Olivia as a character, but one reviewer laments the lack of visibility of Olivia’s vampirism (it’s there, but not major) and a bit where Olivia and her lover apparently suddenly both know and are fine with her vampirism. I’m still looking forward to it, though, and I hope Yarbro is just as wonderful as she’s made out to be.
Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey
Sadima lives in a world where magic has been banned, leaving poor villagers prey to fakes and charlatans. A “magician” stole her family’s few valuables and left Sadima’s mother to die on the day Sadima was born. But vestiges of magic are hidden in old rhymes and hearth tales and in people like Sadima, who conceals her silent communication with animals for fear of rejection and ridicule. When rumors of her gift reach Somiss, a young nobleman obsessed with restoring magic, he sends Franklin, his lifelong servant, to find her. Sadima’s joy at sharing her secret becomes love for the man she shares it with. But Franklin’s irrevocable bond to the brilliant and dangerous Somiss traps her, too, and she faces a heartbreaking decision.Centuries later magic has been restored, but it is available only to the wealthy and is strictly controlled by wizards within a sequestered academy of magic. Hahp, the expendable second son of a rich merchant, is forced into the academy and finds himself paired with Gerrard, a peasant boy inexplicably admitted with nine sons of privilege and wealth. Only one of the ten students will graduate — and the first academic requirement is survival.
Sadima’s and Hahp’s worlds are separated by generations, but their lives are connected in surprising and powerful ways in this brilliant first book of Kathleen Duey’s dark, complex, and completely compelling trilogy.
Kathleen Duey was a panelist on one of the Young Adult Literature track’s panels, and she was just a treat to listen to–very articulate and thoughtful, and she was kind enough to talk with me a little after the panel. I immediately decided to read one of her novels, because she was just so interesting. Skin Hunger interested me by its horror title and by the two narrators separated by time–I love seeing fantasy worlds at different times in their development and how one evolves into the other, and I think this will deliver.
Tay, one of the 3 Evil Cousins, found it compelling and that the two stories worked wonderfully together. Leila at Bookshelves of Doom found it so good she was desperate for more (happily, the sequel, Sacred Scars, is out now). I think this bodes well, and makes me want to read it right now. (But I’m reading fantasy right now and, by my own rules, need to read a non-fantasy book in between. Argh!)