January 09, 2003

The Paths of the Dead, by Steven Brust

Some years ago, Brust wrote a book called The Phoenix Guards. It is set in the same world as his Vlad Taltos novels, though nearly a thousand years earlier; it is also recognizably inspired by Alexander Dumas's book The Three Musketeers. Some time later he wrote a sequel with the odd title Five Hundred Years After; the sequel to The Three Musketeers is called Twenty Years After. So it was no surprise to the Dumas fans in the audience when he announced that the next book would be called The Viscount of Adhrilankha (click on Dumas' name, above, to see why). Nor was it a surprise when it was revealed that The Viscount of Adhrilankha would be published in three volumes. And, after far too long a time, here is the first of them.

I'm almost at a loss to know how to describe this book. First of all, it's a rollicking adventure, like The Three Musketeers. Historically, it takes place during the Interregnum that followed Adron's Disaster, and involves several efforts to reestablish the empire. The hero is a young Tiassa named Piro, the son of our old friend Khaavren. And finally, it's written by Sir Paarfi of Roundwood.

The thing you need to know about Steven Brust is that he almost never writes without a narrator (the Vlad Taltos books, for example, are narrated by Vlad himself). And so, just as The Three Musketeers is an historical novel written by Alexander Dumas, The Paths of the Dead is not a fantasy, but rather a Dragaeran historical novel written by an historian named Sir Paarfi of Roundwood. And Sir Paarfi is a prolix soul (Jane kept asking me if Paarfi was paid the word) who wants to be sure we understand completely everything we need to about his tale--and a good many things we don't really need to know at all. A lot of the charm of the book comes from Paarfi's storytelling....and a lot of the humor is at Paarfi's expense.

An example: the Paths of the Dead are a very odd feature of the Dragaeran landscape. Dead Dragaerans somehow end up there; and if they can traverse the Paths of the Dead they end up in the Halls of Judgement, where they stand some chance of reincarnation. The Paths of the Dead clearly lie along the Blood River at the base of Deathgate Falls, and yet they aren't really on earth. Time behaves strangely in the Paths of the Dead. And Sir Paarfi spends about half a page reminding us about this peculiarity, in great detail, just so that he can then say that in fact it has no effect on our tale.

Brust is one of our regular read-aloud authors, and so I read this aloud to Jane; and I must say that while I enjoyed it, it was heavy going. Paarfi's prose is always perfectly clear, and grammatically correct, but he likes convoluted sentences and long idiomatic constructions, and never uses one word when five will do, so he's a tiring author to read aloud. It was worth it, though.

One caveat: although it ends with a reasonable climax, this book isn't really complete in itself; like The Fellowship of the Ring, it's simply the first third of a single novel. There are lots of threads left dangling in odd places; if you're easily troubled, you might want to wait until the full work is available.

Posted by Will Duquette at January 9, 2003 05:28 PM