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on November 20, 2000
The brief review: I had a slight smile on my face the entire time I read this book. It is, as a reviewer of the Three Muskateers might have once said, "charming."
To elaborate: Brust is very well (some might say "over") educated and knows how to turn a phrase. The plot moves along briskly; the characters, while not fleshed out too thoroughly, do have distinct and effective personalities. I was, at first, a bit lost about the world's/realm's infrastructure of Houses and about the characteristics of each (and what animals the fantasy names correlate to). However, I've not read the Vlad Taltos series, which apparently sheds some light on those matters.
This is not a book to be read at breakneck speed, as the dialogue must be savored and as there are plot details that could otherwise be missed. That said, even if one does commit to reading each excruciatingly polite phrase that the characters utter, there are still times when one wants to throttle them for not getting to the point. Brust plays this game nicely, but he perhaps goes to the well one too many times. Nevertheless, in two words, as the wonderfully pompous narrator might say, this is an amiable sabre-and-sorcery frolick, and I plan to check out Five Hundred Years After, the next book, very soon. (Closer to 3-1/2 or 3-3/4 stars, but 4 is certainly not a stretch.)
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VINE VOICEon March 17, 2005
As others have noted, the Khaavren Romances, the series of five Brust novels that begins with "The Phoenix Guards," is in some senses an homage to Alexander Dumas and his series that began with "The Three Musketeers." It is also an homage to the late Roger Zelazny, an author Brust admired very much. But it mostly Brust having fun. He wrote on his website, "I wrote it for the sheer joy of writing it--I giggled all the way through. No one was more surprised than me that, not only was it published, but a lot of other people seem to like it. Cool." Cool, indeed.

One of the conceits of the Khaavren Romances is that they are written by a contemporary of Khaavren, the protagonist, one Paarfi of Roundwood. Paarfi redefines "prolix" with each page he writes. Like Dumas, Paarfi is paid by the word. Like Dumas, Paarfi writes with hyperformality, wild circumlocutions, and a willingness to break from the narrative thread at any time to chase down almost any distraction. As just one example, at one important juncture Paarfi spends a few pages establishing that a long place name, de-constructed through half a dozen languages, translates as "wood wood wood wood." It's a sly send-up of Dumas; Paarfi out does Dumas, to wonderful effect.

At a time when fantasy literature has deteriorated to clichés and worse, when authors like Diane Wynne Jones can write a "Tough Guide to Fantasyland" and skewer nine-tenths of the genre, it is a sheer delight to find a fantasy writer who can write, who loves to write and who can communicate that delight to his readers.

Like Dumas' Musketeers, this story follows the careers of four young minor nobles, who come to the capital to enlist in the king's special regiment. Except that the setting is not France but rather Brust's Dragaera, the complex world of the Vlad Taltos series, set a millennium before Vlad Taltos. Remember, Draegarans live a very long time. Brust and Paarfi's world is more complex even than 17th century France. Brust as Paarfi revels in the complexities. Khaavren, the main protagonist, is very much d'Artagnan. But in other ways, including the heros' delightful rescue from execution near the end of the book, are Brust's own invention.

This is not "sword and fur jockstrap," slash and sizzle fantasy. There are no heaps of bodies. This is a recasting of a classic by a very fine author. If you know Dumas, it adds to the fun. But if you love language and literature, I think you will like this book very much. I certainly did.
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on August 28, 2013
Steven Brust is an unabashed fan of Alexander Dumas, and "The Phoenix Guards" is his attempt to both emulate and exceed the swashbuckling master of such classics as "The Man in the Iron Mask" and "Count of Monte Cristo." And if one begins this work understanding that this tale is a simulacrum of "The Three Musketeers," then you shall have a far better chance of enjoying the book.

Like Dumas, Brust opens this work by stating that it is based upon a manuscript by another author. Here that book is a "notebook" created by one Paarfi of Roundwood; a historian who has done extensive research concerning the events preceding the fall of the Dragaeran Empire and the Interregnum, which followed. Unfortunately, for Paarfi, his work titled "Toward Beginning a Survey of Some Events Contributing To The Fall of the Empire" was rejected for publication, and so, in an effort to inform people of the important events of this time and put to use his extensive research, he has developed this story we are about to enjoy.

Paarfi thereafter spins a yarn centered on one Khaavren (D'Artagnan), an impoverished country noble, and though the point of view in the story does shift occasionally, the majority of the events in the story are told through his eyes. In any event, our young swashbuckler is a young, naive Dragaera, and though he has - as you would expect - a sword which he is "tolerably well-acquainted with," he also has lots to learn about the world. Thus, he finds himself pointed toward Dragaera City to make a name for himself.

Quite early on into Khaavren's journey, he stumbles into a Lyorn and Dzur, who befriend him; their names are Aerich (Athos) and Tazendra(a female Aramis.)

Now, please understand that the designation of which house these two - and everyone else -belong to is very important in this story, because Dragaera is basically a medieval, feudal society, whose people are members of one of seventeen Houses, or genetic lineages. Each house has its own physical and personality traits, which identify them alone, and so by knowing which house a character is from, a person can instantly make assumptions about said person, and how they will generally behave in almost any given situation.

Naturally, Aerich and Tazendra begin chatting with Khaavren, inform him that they are also lacking in a proper noble income to keep them up and are seeking some redress for this divine prank. To be helpful, Khaavren shares his plan to join the Phoenix Guards, the new Emperor's elite personal troops, and his new friends decide to accompany him on his mission.

When the three arrive in Dragaera City, they meet Pel(Porthos), a Yendi, who is already a member of the guard. Pel helps the trio sign up and even buys their equipment for them. This kind act plus their instant comradery causes Pel to join the trio, and the four musketeers . . . I mean, Phoenix Guards are born. Together the foursome begin swashbuckling their way through adventure after adventure, while they attempt to find their way in the world, uphold their personal honor, fight sword duels, and always cut dashing figures.

Now, this tale that Brust gifts us with is a fine tribute to Dumas, but it is also difficult to digest. There are moments where it is very enjoyable, but there are many, many times it is sheer torture to read. The main problem is, without a doubt, the author's attempt to replicate the formal and ornate style of Dumas, and while Brust succeeds beyond belief in accomplishing this, it might have been better if he had not, because soon the wordy exchanges between the characters become more annoying than pleasurable.

Would you like me to give you an example of this?

Absolute, sir.

Then I will most definitely do so.

Please do so right this instance.

I most certainly will, and let me begin.

It seems that every simple facet of life becomes an intricate, verbal dance for the people in this book. In one chapter, we have our four friends departing the city, but Tazendra seems ill at ease, so the following conversation commences.

Khaavren said, "My good Tazendra, it seems to me that you are unusually silent."
"Well, I am," she said.
"Then tell me, for I am curious, what accounts for this uncharacteristic quietude?"
"I reflect," pronounced Tazendra.
"Ah! You reflect. Pel, Tazendra has been reflecting."
"That is right," said Pel. "And well she should."
"And yet," said Khaavren, addressing himself once more to the Dzurlord, "I should like to learn upon what you reflect."
"Just this," said Tazendra. "We are leaving the city."
"The Horse!" said Khaavren. "I think we are."
"I was wondering-"
"But you just said you were reflecting."
"Oh, I was, I assure you. Only-"
"My reflections transformed themselves into wonderings."
"Well," said Khaavren, "mine have been known to do the same."
"It has happened to me," admitted Pel.
"I never wonder," said Aerich.
"But then," resumed Khaavren, "you say your reflections gave over to wonderings on some subject about which you had questions?"
"Yes," said Tazendra, "you have hit it exactly."
"And what did you wonder?"
"Just this: we are leaving the city-"
"You had already reached the point while you were merely reflecting."

The conversation progresses from there as the four companions debate why they are leaving the city, what they are intending to do, and how they intend to do it. All this done in the most convoluted manner imaginable.
If this was an isolated event, one could overlook it. However, every page contains long, very intricately constructed sentences, where everyone in the novel is determined to be overly formal, overly polite and speak for paragraphs without actually ever getting to the point. When I suggest that the most routine encounter turns into a three page circuitous conversation, I wish I was exaggerating

Even when things become heated between our heroes and others, and it is obvious that swords will be drawn and blood shall be shed, the character's speak in a byzantine manner.

"'It is not a word,' said Pel, tossing his cloak over his shoulder so that the elegant hilt of his blade was visible, 'that pleases my ears.'
'Well,' said the lady who had spoken first, 'I confess that your ears are of only a little concern to me.'
'But,' said Pel, bowing politely, 'your tongue is of great concern to me.'
'For my part,' said Khaavren, 'I am concerned with her feet.'
'How,' said Aerich, who stood between Pel and Khaavren. 'Her feet?'
'Indeed. For if she will use them to move from these cramped quarters, well, I will do her the honor of showing her what my arm can do.'"

Now, many of you may find that last citation witty, if not laugh out loud funny, and it is humorous. But when it is placed into a book, where every page is overblown meandering, you do not even realize the joke is there; it fades into the gray lifelessness that your mind has become from trying to comprehend the unending obtuseness of everything.

And when the characters themselves are not distracting enough, Brust draws in our historian Paarfi, who is written in an annoying, pompous voice. He makes an appearance every chapter or so, interjecting confusing references to Dragaeran people or events that are suppose to aid a reader's understanding of the story, but merely serves to add length to the book and confuse one even more than the rambling dialogue.

An example of this is one chapter, where it begins by Paarfi rambling on about ". . . a certain play, which was written by the master playwright Villsni of Cobbletown, which is called The Return of Duke Highwater." Our narrator goes on to explain what this play was about and compare it to the current story, where a major plot point has never reared its head but will do so now.

I need to know this why?

Wouldn't it have worked just as well to introduce the plot point instead of giving me a review of a fictitious play and compare the two?

But this is merely one example of Paarfi's interruptions into the flow of the story. At other points, Paarfi interjects even more obscure things: such as the history of Dragaeran fortifications. There he explains to the edge of the seat reader that: "The creation for the first time of forts and fortresses (the distinction, certain comments by the Lord of Snails notwithstanding, having nothing whatsoever to do with the presence of breastworks, nor the size of buttresses)."

And it goes on and on.

Even the ending, where Brust does his normal tying up of all the loose plot ends, is merely a reflection of the Dumas work, to which this is a tribute. If you are at all familiar with the tale of the musketeers, you have already foreseen how our four friends tale will end, which means there is absolutely no suspense in the novel.
No doubt, you can tell by this point that I did not enjoy my re-read of this book. This is the third time I've had the pleasure to purview this novel, and each time it becomes less and less appealing. And while I realize Brust's writing style is mimicking Dumas' original, it just does not excuse the problems with the flow of the story.
I do realize many of you already have a desire to read this book, and so you would like me to list the positive aspects of The Phoenix Guard. I will now attempt to do so as simply and succinctly as possible.


1) This is set in the Dragaeran Empire of Brust's Vlad Taltos series but a thousand years before Vlad's birth. If you enjoy those novels and wish to learn more about the "history" of the Dragaera, then The Phoenix Guards will present you with some of that lore. Also, this history will be coming from Dragaeran characters, not an Easterner, and so it should not be tainted by Vlad's preconceived like or dislike of the Dragaera.

2) The writing style. Even though I criticized its overblown intricacy, it cannot be denied that Brust puts on a mesmerizing display of literary ability here. I myself found it just as interesting how he structured a sentence and placed punctuation marks as I did what was actually going on with the characters. While I - as you the reader already can tell - am no master of the written word, I can recognize an epic display of skill when I see it, and Brust does dazzle in that area in this novel.

With those positive elements aside however, I cannot recommend this book to anyone except a Dumas fan. While there is lore about Vlad Taltos' world here, I just cannot envision most Vlad fans loving this one, especially considering how different it is in tone and style from those novels. However, if you need another fix of Musketeer magic and don't want to reread Dumas again, give this book a try. It might make you *YAWN* in its convoluted dialogue, but you can probably force yourself to get through it.
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on April 2, 1998
There are those who are disturbed by Brust's practice of twisting classic works through several alternate dimensions; I am always amazed at how well he does it. The rhythms of the dialogue, the descriptions, the characters -- they are similar but not the same, as though viewed through a glass that distorts and reveals simultaneously. It is a walk along a very cunning tightrope -- not alienating those who love the classic while satisfying those who love the fantasy. As one who has adored the unabridged Dumas since childhood, I confess myself well satisfied. As a reader of fantasy for several decades, I find myself, again, amazed.
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on February 26, 2013
I have owned 2 copies of the paperback and I absolutely ADORE this series.

Yes, the four main characters are homage to some of the most colorful characters in literature ("The Three Musketeers"). So, it stands to reason that Khaavren, Aerich Tazendra and Pel are the four of the most colorful characters in fantasy, period.

Paarfi is a riot himself, if one gets past overblown and wordy style of writing. But to be honest, I never really found him too tedious. Just roll with it and get the joke and his writing style becomes hilarious in its own right. And to be honest, Paarfi's narration never interfere with the situational humor from the characters -- and at times enhanced it. Though, when Paarfi takes a step back and let the characters shine, are the best moments of the tale

Again, probably one of my favorite Dragaeran novels - right up there with "Taltos", "Issola" and "Dragon"
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on April 10, 2006
This author was recommended to me by Tor editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden. And boy...after some of the other recent SF/Fantasy offerings I've sampled, Steven Brust is a major standout. The Phoenix Guards is not only fun--but like the best writers, Brust will stop you in your tracks now and then with an observation or wry comment so elegant you have to put the book down and grab a high-lighter.The book jacket is frankly vague about his background, but wherever Mr. Brust hails from and what his level of education, it is clear that he loves Alexander Dumas (and probably Jane Austen) and indeed 19th century French literature in general. To say that he imitates Dumas would be misleading. He takes the style, the atmosphere and the entire sensibility and makes it his own. While the fantasy world in which the story takes place is not striking (Brust mercifully spares his readers the obligatory cheesy 'maps' that go along with most fantasy novels), and further, his talent for name creation doesn't exactly result in characternyms that roll off the tongue--you really don't care because you are so absorbed in his style, the pace and the characters. Even his villains are disarmingly polite. I realize that the self-consciously stylized, often pedantic nature of the dialogue could drive some readers nuts, but I have to say that over 450 plus pages, I never tired of Khaavren, Aerich and their companions--or of the narrator. Brust is a breath of fresh air, especially when compared to the ponderous and heavy-handed narrative styles of the other vaunted fantasy writers working today.

Overall, superb. I'm looking forward to reading the next in line.
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on August 25, 1998
I have just finished The Phoenix Guards and I must say it has held me in thrall. I find my own speech patterns have been affected by the lovely turns of phrase and linguistic curiosities with which Mr. Brust has peppered his novel. Mr. Brust uses the third-person (Nearly-omniscient) point of view to craft a tale that is witty, cunning, and entertaining. The story is told as a written history collected by all-seeing, all-knowing Dragaeran historians. There are no dry spots. My only complaint is that, despite voliminous explanation to the contrary, I have no idea when in the Jhereg-series timeline all of this takes place (except for the vague timeframe of "Prior to Adron's disaster"). BTW: you get to meet Adron E'Kieron on stage towards the end, which is a treat.
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on April 26, 2013
"The Phoenix Guards" (Orb, $14.95, 330 pages) is at the other end of the fantasy spectrum from the bloody works that dominate shelves today, as it is light, basically blood-free and focuses on fun rather than dismal visions of the future. This is also the first of Steven Brust's five-volume Khaavren Romances, which have a direct stylistic connection to Alexander Dumas, who was paid by the word and thus extended conversations, which Brust does in a relatively amusing manner. (I try to stick to reviewing new books, but I don't always check the publication date - this one first came out in 1991, but the advantage is that at least readers can read the whole series if they like volume one.)

The book, like the Vlad Taltos novels, is set on an unnamed planet where humans are a minority race, and the Dragaerans, who call themselves human, live for thousands of years. Of course, they act like homo sapiens, so there's really not much gained or lost, and the book, like all of Brust's, is light, fun and well-constructed. If you have a hankering for some Three Musketeers'-like swashbuckling, "The Phoenix Guards" are for you - and if you like it, there's plenty more where it came from.
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on July 23, 2012
While The Phoenix Guards is not a one-and-done novel (there is a series to follow) you could read it and never know otherwise. All plot elements are resolved, no hangers are left dangling from cliffs, and no dire mysteries are ever introduced that make us feel we aren't getting the whole story.

The plot itself is a fun little adventure, easy to understand and with a resolution that will leave you smiling.

The characters are generally interesting, though fairly typical occasionally as grand archetypes.

Where this book shines, though, is in the style of writing and the narrative voice. Written as a satire/loving parody of Dumas, it is wordy, repetitive, and often heads down tangents for a page or two - and these quirks are all intentional and HILARIOUS. The author nails the style, especially in the dialogue, which cracks me up every time.

Even if you have no interest in starting a series, or ever reading more of the Khaavren Romances, read this one book. Treat it as a stand-alone and re-read it often.
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on June 17, 2000
If you like old style adventure in the style of Rafeal Sabatini and Alexander Dumas (as obviously I do) this book is for you! If you prefer modern writing styles, stay away. The story line itself is almost straight from a Dumas novel. Khaavren (D'Artagnan) goes to the big city to find fame and fortune in the Guards. He falls in with 3 others Pel (the Porthos character), Tazendra (Aramis character)and Aerich (Athos). They of course all join the guards and have a few adventures including not a few duels. Of course they become embroiled in the palace intrigue and treason surrounding the young king.
Throughout the novel Stephen Brust takes on the voice of Parfi of Roundwood a slightly pompous self-style historian who writes in the somewhat stilted style of Dumas. I found this extremely enjoyable reading and I must admit it served to raise Steven Brust in my estimation of his ability within his chosen craft. If however, you do not care for this style I would shy away from this, it can make for somewhat laborious reading if you are not used to it.
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