Steven Brust

The following books were read from March to May of this year:

Taltos, by Steven Brust: The first book in the Vlad series, chronologically-speaking, and tells how Vlad meets Morrolan, Sethra Lavode, and Aliera. Also explains how he got Spellbreaker. I’ve noticed that Brust varies his narrative technique for each Vlad novel, and in Taltos, he prefaces each chapter with an in media res excerpt of a scene that eventually proves to be the climax. It’s an interesting idea although I don’t know exactly how successful it is, since the reader doesn’t understand the significance of the scene until the story has progressed nearly until the end.

Phoenix, by Steven Brust: Set immediately after Teckla and before Athyra. It deals with the ramifications of the Easterner-Teckla revolt in South Adrilankha and ends up explaining most of the larger picture. Less philosophy, but more action and more scope. Previous stories may have mentioned much of the backdrop but the actual course of Vlad’s adventures until now had remained rather narrow. Here, he deals with internal and external politics at every level, from the demagoguery in South Adrilankha to the mafia dealings of the Jhereg to the state of the Empire itself. Zerika was impressive. I liked the drummer from Elde Island as well. I thought it a nice touch of dramatic irony that Vlad in his most triumphant moment has to leave behind friends and family and run for his life.

Athyra, by Steven Brust: Well, for the first time, Brust writes a Vlad novel in third person, and the effect is very disorienting. Later, we realize the reason for this shift: Brust likes working out how his Dragaera novels are being told on a meta level, and while Vlad was in Adrilankha, working as an assassin, he had been relating his adventures directly in person (to some recording device, apparently). Now that he’s in exile, he’s no longer able to do so, and thus, we get third person. We also get third person from the perspective of a Teckla, which is even more unusual. I must say that while Brust doesn’t exude virtuosity in his writing, the more you think about it, the more you realize that he has an incredible range and flexibility in voice and style and tone.

Orca, by Steven Brust: Follows Athyra, framed as Kiera relating her recent adventure with Vlad to Cawti. Actually, that’s a bit too facile: Brust builds up a couple of stories within stories here, although he keeps his chapters alternating between Vlad and Kiera narrating in first person, which makes it seem simpler. (He also has interludes of conversation between Cawti and Kiera to remind you of the context in which the story’s being told.) I have to say that Orca is probably my favorite in the series simply for the revelations at the end. (I am tempted to reread the first books if only to rethink all my previous assumptions.) The story too is more intricate than ever, with Vlad assuming many disguises and all sorts of third- and fourth-guessing taking place.

The Phoenix Guards, by Steven Brust: The first book of the Khaavren Romances is closely based on The Three Musketeers, and Brust accordingly adopts a new narrator: Paarfi of Roundwood, pompous, long-winded and unintentionally hilarious. Brust really enjoys developing the meta aspects of his storytelling, by the way; Paarfi nearly becomes a character in his own right as he rants on in his prefaces/afterwords to each novel. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Phoenix Guards is an unabashed romance in the truest sense of the word (despite Paarfi’s historical pretensions), and I adored it. I do have to say that Brust makes all his characters more unambiguously likeable than Dumas does. Khaavren’s infatuation with Illista isn’t as tiresome as d’Artagnan’s obsession with Milady. Aerich doesn’t quite have Athos’ gloominess (I must admit that as a result Aerich falls short of being my favorite character), Pel doesn’t have Aramis’ foppishness (not to say that Pel doesn’t care about appearances, just that he seems less shallow about it) and Tazendra doesn’t have Porthos’ stupendous egotism. I suppose in this respect I don’t quite take The Phoenix Guards as seriously as I would The Three Musketeers, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it completely.

Dragon, by Steven Brust: Set after Taltos and before Yendi (well, not exactly, its coda comes after Vlad meets Cawti). Vlad goes to war, Aliera acquires Pathfinder. Brust tries a variation on the technique he used in Taltos, except the in media res scene that prefaces each chapter isn’t set apart by italics but is narrated in present tense. He then transitions to the main body of the narrative by having Vlad recollect something, thus proceeding to shift to past tense. The effect is a bit contrived and awkward. The story wasn’t quite so interesting, but it does give some insights into the Dragaeran mindset, which I still don’t quite understand even now. I should probably qualify that as the Dragon mindset, actually.

Five Hundred Years After, by Steven Brust: Sequel to The Phoenix Guards, which at long last explains Adron’s Disaster that Brust kept alluding to in the Vlad series. Basically how the Interregnum came to pass. I appreciated the way Brust developed Khaavren’s character—how he matured and changed over the years—and the description of Tortaalik’s daily routine and court life was excellent (comme Louis-seize à Versailles). Five Hundred Years After really works as a “history”. I don’t mean that Paarfi’s long digressions on his chosen profession are particularly illuminating, but that Brust structures the novel so that one sees how events precipitated by many different individuals in many different places collide and interact like ping-pong balls in a room full of mousetraps to cause an uncontrollable cascade. In a way, the question of individual versus circumstances, I suppose. Anyway, my point is that Brust shows it better than Paarfi tells it.