The Khaavren Romances
Steven Brust, The Phoenix Guards (Tor, 1992)
Steven Brust, Five Hundred Years After (Tor, 1994)
Steven Brust, The Viscount of Adrilankha (Tor, 2002)
Steven Brust, The Paths of the Dead (Tor, 2002)
Steven Brust, The Lord of Castle Black (Tor, 2003)
Steven Brust, Sethra Lavode (Tor, 2003)
That somewhat dizzying array of titles may give some indication of the scope of the series that Steven Brust calls The Khaavren Romances. It's a trilogy, but the third volume is itself composed of three books, even though it's really one book . . . Maybe I should let Brust explain this:
The Viscount of Adrilankha is not a trilogy, it is a three volume novel. That is, it should be thought of as a single book. The Khaavren Romances are, in fact, a trilogy, of which Viscount is the third novel. Therefore, these five books are clearly seen to be a trilogy consisting two one-part novels and one three-part novel. Each part consists of two "books." Therefore, chapter four of book two of part three of the third book is easily seen to be chapter fifty two of the third novel, or chapter one hundred and twenty of. . . .
There. Got it?
It is a deceptively complex set of books, quite unexpected from someone who has the reputation of being a good fantasy writer -- one of the best -- but has heretofore made no claim to any sort of "literariness" in his work. Best start with some basics.
The story is about the events in the history of the Dragaeran Empire known as Adron's Disaster, the Interregnum, and the Restoration. For those familiar with the Taltos Cycle, it provides a little bit of history, not only for the Empire itself, but for some of the characters in that excellent series. The story line itself centers around Khaavren of Castlerock, who makes a few appearances by reference in the Taltos Cycle (most notably in Orca, where he is a force to cause some unease in various conspirators) and his son Piro, who is the Viscount of Adrilankha. We also meet Adron e'Kieron, his daughter Aliera, Morrolan e'Drien (with an account of his early history in the East), and Sethra Lavode, not to mention the Necromancer, Sethra the Younger, and the Empress Zerika IV, learning, along the way, how each became who he or she is when they begin to inhabit the world of Vlad Taltos. (I should add that my saying the story line centers around Khhavren and Piro does not exclude by any means occasional focus on other characters.)
I have often thought of Brust as a parodist in the original sense (and it is an indication of how impoverished the language has become that I have to make that distinction): perhaps I should say "homages," but one can find in his works a strong tendency to adopt the style and devices of another author, with greater or lesser fidelity, and to take the idea and run. (Think, for example, of To Reign in Hell as a riff on Roger Zelazny, and the Taltos Cycle itself as a set of variations on Nero Wolfe -- or rather, Archie Goodwin: there is an astonishing likeness there.) In this case, Brust starts off with Alexandre Dumas pére and The Three Musketeers. (Brust calls it a "blatant ripoff.") A young, impoverished nobleman comes to the capital to make his fortune in the Guard, and meets three others who become his fast friends, each with secrets in the past, in the service of a weak and ineffectual monarch whose consort engages in intrigues of her own, all within a court filled with advisers who are more interested in their own gain than in the good of the Empire. (The irony in all of this is that I, who had as a teenager been very fond of Rafael Sabatini, who also exerts some influence here, had not read Dumas until my interest was sparked by The Phoenix Guards.)
The style is a take-off on Dumas and Sabatini, kicked up an order of magnitude into something that in its own right becomes not only enjoyable reading but hysterically funny. It is not often that an author can make me laugh out loud, and almost unheard of that I will do so because of the way he has rendered dialogue -- not the content, mind you, but the actual speech itself -- and yet there are passages in both of the initial volumes in which I simply cannot keep a straight face, particularly those exchanges involving the Dzurlord Tazendra, one of Khaavren's companions, whose comprehension of events often lags behind her participation. These exchanges become a repeating pattern, almost a leitmotiv, punctuated by Brust's own variations of Dumas' renderings of seventeenth century oaths and exclamations.
The books are also replete with the digressions that Brust does so well, which are not only enjoyable themselves but informative and illustrative. In the hands of Paarfi of Roundwood, the titular author of the books, they illustrate not only the story but the storyteller as well. This is perhaps the high point of a style that is amazingly accomplished. Having read as much Brust as I have, I should have suspected a set-up. Brust is giving us a look at the classic nineteenth-century adventure/romance with a layer of academic apologetics to bring it into focus -- and to expand the possibilities for satire, something that seems never to be far below the surface with Brust.
The Phoenix Guards finishes with a short commentary on Paarfi of Roundwood by Steven Brust -- and then a short commentary on Steven Brust by Paarfi of Roundwood. Five Hundred Years After contains, as a coda, an interview between Brust, the "translator," and Paarfi. I am reminded of nothing so much as David Gerrold's advice to aspiring writers of science fiction and fantasy to "interview" their characters as a means of fleshing them out. In this instance, Paarfi not only refuses to rise to the bait, but takes the opportunity to give us his opinion of publishers and those who consort with them -- including translators -- in no uncertain terms. Given the realities of relationships between authors and publishers, particularly in the nineteenth century, this is nothing short of hysterical, a word I begin to fear is going to be overused in this discussion.
With The Viscount of Adrilankha (a name, by the way, reminiscent of Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar), we enter unreservedly the territory of the metanovel, which is to say the fiction itself becomes surrounded by a layer of commentary that encloses it in another, larger set of fictions. In addition to prefaces to each volume by Paarfi, we are given a Publisher's Note by Luchia of North Leatherleaf; a treatise on "auctorial method and voice" by C. Sophronia Cleebers, of the Resident Special Faculty on Dragaeran Studies; a review of a six-volume attack on Paarfi published by the University Press, by Ilen, A Magician; and an Afterword by Ivan Sekély, Witch-Antiquary. (These are, in order of appearance, Emma Bull, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Neil Gaiman, and John M. Ford.) The whole edifice becomes a finely honed satire on academia, literary criticism, and for that matter, the whole idea of the "mainstream" as a manifestation of literature superior to genre.
What Brust has done here (with the aid of a few friends) is to turn out a literary fantasy with none of the self-conscious artistry we tend to associate with literary fiction. (This is not to say that "literariness" or self-conscious artistry are in and of themselves undesirable, but rather that in Brust's contribution, the artistry is completely transparent, so that we have no idea how conscious it is.)
Now, lest I've made this whole thing sound way too rarified and "important" to be of interest to those just looking for a good time, let me point out one thing: Brust, out of any number of authors of science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, or any other realm of literature I have ever encountered, seems to have fun writing (as much as that is possible). As explicated in Brust's second theory of literature: "The novel should be understood as a structure built to accommodate the greatest possible amount of cool stuff." Consequently, in line with Brust's first theory of literature, the reader is going to have fun in the degree to which he agrees with Brust as to what's cool. To be quite honest, I have lots of fun reading Brust's novels, so I think I'm close to 100% concurrence there. The Khaavren Romances are just one of those things: they're fun to read all by themselves, and the more familiarity you have with Dumas, Sabatini, college professors, historians, and the like, the more fun you will have.
Steven Brust has a Web site, the Dream Café, which warns the unwary surfer that "You're in the wrong place. This is the Steven Brust Home Page." Take it as you will.