Brust, Steven: (203) The Paths of the Dead

Yay, Brust.

So, The Paths of the Dead does, indeed, rock just as much as I’d hoped during the long wait for it. This is the next book in the series of Dumas pastiches set on Dragaera; the first two were The Phoenix Guards and Five Hundred Years After. Paths is the either the third book in the series, or the first part of the three-volume third book, The Viscount of Adrilankha. Normally, I strongly recommend publication order. However, I do suspect that if all you’ve read so far is the Vlad Taltos books, Paths would not be a horrible place to start the Khaavren series, because it includes many more familiar characters and referenced events than the prior Khaavren books. (I think The Phoenix Guards was the first of Brust’s Dragaera books I read; obviously I enjoyed it, but I recall finding the worldbuilding a bit difficult to decipher. As best I can judge, Paths does a smoother job of incluing the reader.)

Paths is set approximately 250 years after the Empire was destroyed. It’s clear from the first (even if you haven’t read the other books) that the Empire gets restored; this is the story of how various people set out to do so. It’s a hugely fun ride, one that’s extremely smooth and compulsively readable: so much so that it’s quite ironic that it took me so long to start reading, and then to write about, this book—because it took me practically no time at all to read it. This is all the more impressive when one considers that this is the first third of a longer work, meaning that several plot threads are left dangling. It ends on somewhat less than a cliffhanger, however, and so I’m not biting my nails for the next one for that reason. (The Lord of Castle Black was recently completed and is scheduled for release in August. While the release of each volume separately has caused some comment, it’s fine with me: Paths is 400 pages long, and I’d like to be able to lift my books, please.)

There’s a multitude of items, both small and large, to delight the reader in this book. For some reason, I am unaccountably fond of Pel and Sethra’s conversation, and Pel’s subsequent account of it, in Chapter 28. I also like the trip through the Paths of the Dead; at one level, I’m sure there’s some significance to the landscape, because this is Brust, who structured a whole book around a fable and the creation of one painting (The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars), yet on the other, I have to agree with the character who mutters, “Useless, although, no doubt, significant in a mystical way that is beyond my mortal comprehension. Bah.” (And I still don’t understand how the paths for each House get communicated. Have I missed something?)

There’s also a Prelude, by Paarfi’s publisher; “Some Notes Toward Two Analyses of Auctorial Method and Voice,” as an about-the-author; and a Cast of Characters, which, notably, includes some presumably-significant people who haven’t yet appeared. Even this extra stuff is fun. The Prelude, by Emma Bull, continues to build Paarfi (the narrator) as a character in his own right, and includes the lovely sentences “But I’m sure none of his readers begrudge the extra decade it took him to complete this book, beyond our announced date of publication. Certainly we here in the editorial offices understood completely, and are sure our creditors will, as well.” (Cf. “long wait for” Paths, above.) The “Two Analyses,” by Teresa Nielsen Hayden, are “How to Write Like Paarfi of Roundwood” and “How to Write Like Steven Brust” (which, oddly, appears to be in a larger typeface than the Paarfi bit). The first note under the Paarfi section is perhaps my favorite:

1. Always refer to yourself as “we.” It is unclear why Paarfi prefers to use the first person plural. He doesn’t seem to be speaking jointly for himself and his patron of the moment; neither is he speaking jointly on behalf of himself and Steven Brust. His true camaraderie is reserved for himself and his manuscript, but that doesn’t usually prompt a writer to speak in the plural. It may be that he’s using the editorial “we.” Alternatively, he may just have a mouse in his pocket.

Emma Bull and Teresa Nielsen Hayden are pretty darn cool, too.

My only complaint is that I’m not crazy about the cover, but that’s a minor thing: don’t let it stop you from going out and reading this right away (well, stopping first to read some of the other books in this world, if you really must). Have fun.

[ This was also posted to rec.arts.sf.written, so if you have Usenet access, feel free to take comments there. (Google link, may take a few hours to show up.) ]

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