Top critical review
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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?
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.