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The Paths of the Dead cover

The English professor in me knows that this would be the wrong way to begin a review: "The Paths of the Dead is a great book, but to really appreciate it there are twenty other books you should read first." That's the sort of thing that I say to my students about great literature, not the sort of thing you're supposed to say about an entertaining fantasy novel. And besides, it isn't true. There are seventeen other books you should read: the nine books in Brust's Vlad Taltos series, his stand-alone novel Brokedown Palace, the first two of his Khaavren romances (of which Paths is the next installment), and the five volumes of Alexandre Dumas's D'Artagnan romances, upon which the Khaavren romances are based. Although readers unfamiliar with Brust's work would enjoy Paths of the Dead most fully if they would read these other seventeen books first, I think that readers unfamiliar with any of them could pick up this book and enjoy it greatly, if they're looking for stylistically playful and intellectually serious heroic fantasy. Since I've been reading Brust's Dragaeran novels and romances for eighteen years, maybe I'm not one to judge that. But I can say that The Paths of Dead lives up to the high standard set by the earlier Khaavren romances, and Brust remains one of the most interesting writers of heroic fantasy.

Brust has held my interest for eighteen years in part because he doesn't repeat himself, even in a long series featuring the same characters. Readers who love the first two Khaavren books, Phoenix Guards and Five Hundred Years After should be prepared for Paths to be quite different from them. Five Hundred Years After darkened the ebullient heroics of the original Phoenix Guards with tragedy and catastrophe; The Paths of the Dead begins, I think, to tell the story of a diminished heroism, as the great generation of Khaavren and his friends begins to give way to the new generation that will dominate the less heroic "present" depicted in the Vlad Taltos novels. If you have been waiting anxiously to meet old friends from the earlier books and to hear repartee along the lines of --

"Well," said Kytraan, "but then, you perceive, we have no quarrel."

"No," said the other, in tones of deep regret. "It appears we have none."

"Cha!" said Piro. "It nearly sounds as if you are sorry that we cannot slaughter each other."

"Well," said the stranger. "I do not deny it. But, alas, it seems I must be denied the pleasure."

"You perceive," said Piro, "that being slaughtered would not be nearly so great a pleasure for us."

"Oh, I understand that. But I was so looking forward to fighting you both at once, as I have had not such an opportunity for some years."

"Cha!" said Piro. "She is not lacking in confidence."

-- well, you will not be disappointed, nor would you be wrong in guessing that the unknown interlocutor in this exchange is none other than Tazendra, who is always willing to quarrel, so long as the other side has the advantage of numbers. But you should be prepared for a less mannered and more varied style in much of the book. Some parts of The Paths of the Dead take place in the lands of the Easterners, and the narrator adapts his style to suit the mysteriousness of the distant setting. When the younger characters speak together, their language is plainer than that of their elders, and, when they act, their sense of honor is much less refined. Brust is registering the movement of history in this change of style. It gives the story integrity and depth, but I and, I think, the narrator himself regard the passing of the older style with regret.

For those new to the series, I should explain that the Khaavren romances and the Vlad novels are all set on the world of Dragaera, which is inhabited by several races: Easterners, who are human like us, Dragaerans, who are elflike (they live for 2000 years or more), the rare and mysterious Serioli, and perhaps others. The world was once dominated by another strange race, the Jenoine, but the gods of Dragaera drove them out and since have defended their world against the Jenoine's attempted incursions. Vlad Taltos is an Easterner living in the empire of the Dragaerans. His nine novels are told (mostly) from his perspective, and they function as the present in the chronology of the two series. The Khaavren romances are historical romances written by a Dragaeran, Paarfi of Roundwood, at about the time that Vlad lives (characters in the Vlad novels are seen occasionally to read Paarfi's books). They relate the tumultuous events of a thousand years or so of Dragaeran history leading up to Vlad's present, focusing on the adventures of four friends -- Khaavren, Aerich, Tazendra, and Pel. They enlist together in the Phoenix Guards, the honor guard of the Dragaeran emperor, and, fired with the desire for honor and glory, they become enmeshed in the great and terrible events of the age. Paarfi's ornate style is modeled on the style of Alexandre Dumas, and the adventures of the four friends are loosely based on the adventures of D'Artagnan and the Three Musketeers. It's a bit complicated, especially since Brust has been writing the two series simultaneously (my strong recommendation, if you want to read both series, is that you read the books in the order they were written), but he manages his vast canvas with remarkable consistency and control: most of the inconsistencies, as he notes in the acknowledgements for Paths, are deliberate.

Brust's technical control of his material is another feature of his work that has helped to hold my interest over the years: I enjoy noticing little correspondences of details between the two series, seeing the world gradually pieced together as the stories unfold. Insofar as the world-building of fantasy is a game played for the game's own sake, Brust is a master player. Indeed, he sets himself world-building challenges that few fantasists would attempt. Consider the constraints he sets up for Paths of the Dead. The history he relates is doubly determined: it must conform both to the historical details already established in the Vlad books and to the model of Dumas's D'Artagnan romances. Then it must be composed of exactly 34 chapters, divided into two books of 17 chapters each in honor of the 17 Great Houses of the Dragaeran Empire (each Vlad novel has 17 chapters). The style must continue the complex imitation of Dumas begun in the earlier Khaavren books but modulate appropriately to affect the changing times. Watching Brust keep all these elements working smoothly together is like watching a juggler keep five flaming torches lit and moving smoothly through the air, all without burning a finger. It's a great delight.

I suspect Brust wouldn't want to do it any other way. His writing seems to thrive on intricate technical challenges: his writing is often weakest when he has the fewest constraints to challenge him. The two most recent Vlad books, Dragon and Issola, are both less complicated, and both lack some of the energy and showmanship that delight the reader in the rest of the Dragaeran books. Paths has that energy and showmanship in abundance. If the book has a weakness in its design, it is that the plot is not very tightly constructed. There are half a dozen story-lines advancing through the novel, and while they do touch one another at times, the links between them are sometimes perfunctory. Of course, since this is the first book of what I expect will be a tightly connected trilogy rather that a self-contained adventure (the next book, The Lord of Castle Black, is scheduled for release in August), it may be that the plot will thicken in the upcoming volumes.

The main plot of Paths of the Dead can be described, as its narrator Paarfi would say, in two words: Zerika of the House of the Phoenix discovers her identity as heir to the Imperial Throne and, with the help of friends and mentors, sets out to re-establish the Dragaeran Empire after a 250-year Interregnum. The first step in the restoration must be the recovery of the Imperial Orb, which is both the sign and the source of an Emperor's power. It was lost during the sorcerous disaster that brought down the Empire, but Sethra Lavode, the ageless undead wizard who has a hand in almost all of Brust's Dragaeran books, knows where it is and what Zerika must do to recover it: she must walk the Paths of the Dead and convince the gods, who dwell there, to let her leave with the Orb. This main plot is interlaced with several other threads of plot: the efforts of an ambitious warlord of the House of the Dragon to re-found the Empire by military conquest, the adventures of Zerika's young friend Piro, the adventures of two daring and beautiful young ladies of the Houses of the Dzur and the Tiassa, and the coming of age of Morrolan e'Drien, one of the central characters in the Vlad Taltos books. And in the background, observing these events but not (yet) taking a leading role in them, are the four heroes of The Phoenix Guards and Five Hundred Years After: Tazendra, Aerich, Pel, and, of course, Khaavren himself.

Zerika's story contains most of the romances's high adventure, and the scenes in which the gods appear are simply magnificent -- I've already re-read them several times. Because of the diffuseness of the plot, this romance is much less of a page-turner than many of Brust's works (especially the early Vlad books now collected in The Book of the Jhereg, whose fiendishly intricate plotting entices the reader to race breathlessly to the novel's climax). It's a more leisurely read, and its history and character development are its strongest features. Paarfi's concern, and behind him, Brust's, is to provide a view into the experience of political and social decay that they find in the story of the Interregnum, the collapse of the Dragaeran Empire. For example, when Ibronka (the aforementioned young lady of the House of the Dzur) receives word that she is to set out on a long journey, Paarfi seizes the occasion to sketch both her character and the character of the time:

We cannot, however much we might wish to, make the reader fully understand the effect this letter had upon Ibronka; yet the reader should recall that the young girl had been born after Adron's Disaster, and that she had, during her short life, been raised with the expectation that there would be no opportunity for the sort of adventures of which the young Dzurlord dreams and upon which the older Dzurlord thrives. It is odd to consider that, to the reader of our own happy day, the years of the Interregnum appears [sic] rife with adventure; indeed, it seems to us now that it is the very end of the Interregnum that has put an end to the dangers and romance upon which dreams of action and excitement are fed; yet it is undeniable that to those who lived at the time, it seemed that it was the Empire itself that provided the structure and the backdrop against which glory could be won, and that the dangers of the time were, though certainly threatening to life and limb, of a poor and miserable sort, there being no Imperium before which to stand and receive the rewards of gallantry. In other words, the dangers of the time were considered to be mundane and uninteresting dangers, which did nothing except to force one to stay at home to avoid an ignominious death which would contribute nothing to honor or prestige.

If explorations of the link between history and character in a stylistically elegant, meticulously detailed fantasy world are the sort of thing on which your imagination thrives, you can hardly do better than Paths of the Dead, and the whole of Brust's two Dragaera series. If your first interest is swashbuckling high adventure, Paths will have somewhat less to offer than many of the earlier Dragaera books, but it is not without its moments of extraordinary derring-do, especially in the climactic chapters. And I think the reader who is as anxious as Ibronka for glorious adventure should not be discouraged. Dumas opened his Vicomte de Bragelonne trilogy, which concluded the D'Artagnan romances, with a slower-paced book that introduced a new generation of characters and the milieu of Louis XIV's court. Dumas concluded that trilogy, however, with the magnificent Man in the Iron Mask, which sent out the original comrades in a final blaze of glory. I think we can be confident that Brust's four friends will not remain in the background for the rest of the series and that plot will not be neglected in favor of character and world-building in the forthcoming books. For all that Brust has written twelve interconnected novels set on Dragaera, every one before Paths has been a complete adventure in itself: this is his first trilogy. As always, he's doing something new, and for the reader who is prepared to appreciate change, to figure out the new game that Brust is playing, it makes for an exciting and engrossing book. I recommend it highly, and I look forward eagerly to the next. I waited eight years for The Paths of the Dead to follow Five Hundred Years After, and it was worth the wait. To be able to look forward to seeing The Lord of Castle Black follow it in a mere six months -- well, I ask nothing better.


Copyright © 2003 Christopher Cobb

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Christopher Cobb is Senior Reviews Editor for Strange Horizons.

Christopher Cobb is a former reviews editor for Strange Horizons.
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