I have been asking for nothing else for an hour: Steven Brust’s The Phoenix Guards

The Phoenix Guards (1991) is a novel in the mode of The Three Musketeers. It’s set in Brust’s world of Dragaera, but almost a thousand years before the Vlad books. The Vlad books are hardboiled wisecracking first person, the Paarfi books are long-winded romantic omniscient. The Phoenix Guards is delightful. Four young (barely a hundred years old) Dragaerans travel to Dragaera City on the accession of the Phoenix Emperor Tortalik with the intention of taking up positions in the newly formed Phoenix Guards. They are of different Houses but they’re all young and enthusiastic, they love honor, adventure, duelling and swordplay. They share an immense zest for life. Khaavren is an honor-loving Tiassa, Tazendra is an impetuous Dzur, Aerich is a thoughtful Lyorn who likes crocheting, and Pel is a devious Yendi. They fight crime! And they have adventures! And the adventures are related by a historian who insists he is sticking to the facts, which does seem doubtful from time to time.

I think Paarfi’s style, as well as being infectious—an infection which I am endeavouring to the best of my ability to resist for the purposes of this article—is something people either love or hate. I love it. Give me chapter titles like “In which the author resorts to a stratagem to reveal the results of a stratagem” or “In which our friends realise with great pleasure that the situation has become hopeless” and I am happy all day. If you like the style this is a lighthearted adventure about four highspirited friends bantering and duelling their way into trouble and out of it again, and I recommend it highly. I read this before I read the Vlad books, and there are things about the world that were utterly opaque to me but I still thoroughly enjoyed it.

For those who pretend they have no objection to Spoilers, and on the general assumption the reader has done themselves the honor of reading the books…

So, having given us Vlad and alternated between novels in the main continuity and novels set earlier than Jhereg, and throwing everything into confusion with Brokedown Palace, I think it’s reasonable to say that nobody could have expected this Dumas pastiche. It isn’t a retelling of The Three Musketeers in Dragaera, it’s more something inspired by the concept of The Three Musketeers and Sabatini mixing with a solid fantasy world to come up with something totally original. This was Brust’s first book for Tor, though he continued to publish with Ace as well for a few more books.

As far as the world of Dragaera is concerned, it gives us another angle, and it tells us a lot about life before the Interregnum, when things Vlad takes for granted like revivification, psionic communication and teleportation were incredibly difficult. It’s a very different world, and yet it’s recognisably the same world, with the Houses, the Cycle, and glimpses of the science fictional explanations underlying the fantastic surface. Of all the Khaavren romances, The Phoenix Guards has the least historical relevance. The battle of Pepperfields, and the peace that Khaavren (“Lord Kav”) makes with the Easterners is the same battle that we see in Brokedown Palace, from an utterly different perspective. (Reading these two first made me think this was a lot more significant than it turns out to be.) We meet Adron, five hundred years before his famous rebellion and disaster, and Aliera is born—announced by Devera.

I go through the Vlad books like cookies, gobbling them as fast as I can, grabbing another as soon as I finish the one in my hand. Brokedown Palace is like a baked Alaska, hot and cold and once, and very puzzling. The Phoenix Guards is like a warm croissant with melted chocolate and strawberries, you can’t gulp it down like a cookie, you have to savour it, but it’s an utterly delicious confection.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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