Mon
Nov 23 2009 12:27pm

A coachman’s tale: Steven Brust’s Brokedown Palace

Brokedown Palace was the first Brust I read. I’d heard him well spoken of online, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to pick up the extremely ugly British edition of the first three Vlad books, and this was in the library. It was an unusual place to start with Dragaera, but not a terrible one. It’s a very odd book, and it was very odd of Brust to write it after Yendi and before Teckla. It’s set in the East, in Fenario, and you wouldn’t know it was Dragaera at all except that it clearly is. It’s written like a fairytale—and it’s punctuated with things written even more like fairytales. It draws on Brust’s Hungarian background, and it’s connected to the Grateful Dead song “Brokedown Palace.”

I really like this book and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but it’s so dreamlike and odd that I find it very difficult to talk about coherently. It’s like trying to pick up fragments of mist. Brilliant book. Very weird.

It’s about a family of brothers who live in the kingdom of Fenario, on the borders of Faerie. The eldest, Laszlo, is the king, and he beats up the youngest, Miklos, because Miklos mentions that the palace is falling down. Dying, Miklos slips into the River that flows out of Faerie, and one of the great powers of the land. Then he meets a talking horse and after that it gets weird. The book is a fairytale about brothers, death, life, renewal, magic, love and keeping norska. (Norska are rabbits. Rabbits like the rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I instantly recognised that as a norska the first time I saw the film.)

This book is undoubtedly a fairytale. It’s also undoubtedly set in Dragaera which is easily seen as science-fictional. The orange overcast that covers the Empire is here as the “hand of Faerie” and in the same way the magic here is infinitely more magical. There’s a lot less of it. In the Vlad books, people routinely make psionic communication and raise the dead. Here a bit of magical healing is very unusual. But what there is, isn’t taken for granted, isn’t routine, is magical perhaps even magical realist—there’s a taltos horse (which raises questions about why Vlad is called “taltos”) that can talk, there’s a tree that becomes a palace, and a river with an agenda. All the magic in the Vlad books can be categorized, repeated, relied on. Here, none of it can.

I find myself reading it now with double vision. Looked at one way Miklos goes into Faerie and labours for two years and comes back as a wizard. Looked at another he goes into the Empire, becomes a Teckla, gets a perfectly ordinary connection to the Orb and learns a little sorcery. There’s the whole thing of killing Verra and stopping sorcery from working. It’s a very weird book, and I suspect it contains some keys to the universe if only I could see them clearly. Certainly, starting here I never had any confusion about the overcast, that the Furnace is the sun and that you never see clear sky.

The book starts with the legend of Fenarr, which is seen from the Dragaeran side in The Phoenix Guards. This is clearly the same incident, the same set of events, seen through that doubled vision—from the Eastern side it’s ringed about with fantasy, mist, legend, magic, from the Dragaeran side it’s a clever bit of diplomacy. This may have something to do with the length of time an Easterner lives. Fenarr is a legend in Fenario, but “Lord Kav” with whom he arranged the peace, is still alive.

It doesn’t say so in the book, but I have heard as extra-canonical information that Brigitta’s baby (the one people will have to look out for) is Cawti. Interesting if true, and a bit mind-boggling.


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.

15 comments
the zedmeister
1. the zedmeister
Haven't read Brokedown Palace, so I can't properly comment on the book, but didn't Brust say somewhere that Taltos means witch in Hungarian?
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Zedmeister: It may very well. I wouldn't be surprised. Anne Rice used it as a title, so it must be a word with meaning outside Dragaera. That doesn't necessarily mean that this is the precise sense in which Brust is using it, but it is certainly interesting.
Liza .
3. aedifica
It sounds like one of these days I'll have to read Brokedown Palace, then. I've never read more than the first page or two of it, though I've read all his other books set on that world.
David Goldfarb
4. David_Goldfarb
Interesting coincidence -- my first Dragaera book was also Brokedown Palace. (I told Brust himself that once, at a signing. He asked me if it stood on its own. I said it did.) It wasn't my first Brust; that was To Reign in Hell, which I wasn't (and still am not) very impressed with. But it was Brokedown Palace and Jhereg that made me a fan. It was quite a mental realignment to read some of the Vlad books and realize that the mystical people with their sorcerous powers in Palace...were Teckla.

While Paarfi is closer in lifespan to the Battle of the Pepperfields, I think it's clear that he has his own biases and is quite willing to just make things up. His account of the battle and the one at the start of Palace are two different perspectives from which we can try to triangulate on the truth. It would be a mistake to uncritically regard Paarfi's account as the true one.

I was a little surprised that you didn't talk about Palace's origins as Marxist allegory. Brust said he wrote it "to prove to myself that I ought not to write allegories". There's an interesting article about it at the Dragaera wiki: Meta:Brokedown Palace.
Elio García
5. Egarcia
Here I had just gone and previewed my post, only to see David beat me to the Marxist aspect of the book. Foiled again!

It's an excellent read, is all I can add on top of that.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
David, Egarcia, I didn't know it was supposed to be a Marxist allegory, and I'm kind of glad I didn't know, though that might make some of the very puzzling things about it less puzzling.

OK I have read that post, or the beginning of it up to the point where it made me gnash my teeth and roll my eyes. ("Brigitta is art") I like the book much better not as a Marxist analogy, and I will try to forget about that reading as rapidly as I can. Ick.

How sensible Mr Brust was to change his mind about that.
Agnes Kormendi
8. tapsi
A táltos (or taltos) is not a witch. It's a shaman. Quite the classical shaman: he's probably best known for climbing the World Tree (travelling between worlds), but he does all the things shamans usually do. The word has a very strong pagan connotation, and, unlike a witch, a taltos is not evil. He is human, so he can be twisted, but he's definitely not like a witch or a warlock.

Taltos is also the word for the talking horse that carries heroes to the worlds above, only eats burning embers and is often more clever than its master. Miklos's talking horse is actually a very familiar character for Hungarians age 2 and up. It is only possible to get a taltos horse by crossing over to the otherworld, too, just as Miklos did.

Usually, if you come across the word "táltos" in a fairy tale, it is the horse. If you come across the word in a historical tale, it's the shaman.

There is this bit of folk tradition that people born with 6 fingers, a tooth, or people who grow up to have 33 teeth, are "taltos", and we still use that as a joke, but generally the word doesn't refer to the capacity of doing magic but to the person (or the horse).

Brokedown Palace is the only Brust novel published in Hungarian as far as I know, and it wasn't a success. For a Hungarian it reads like a traditional tale with the proportions just slightly off. It isn't different enough to feel like a new take on Hungarian folk tales, it's just off. In retrospect, keeping the original names didn't help; for you, a lot of the names and expressions read just like another bunch of fantasy nonsense words, but for a Hungarian reader it's a really odd mixture of existing words, common names and fantasy nonsense. I sometimes wish I could read Brokedown Palace without this background knowledge, because apparently it works a lot better for foreigners.

But maybe it's just that folk tales generally have a very strict structure that doesn't work well with Marxist allegories... :)
Elio García
9. Egarcia
Funnily enough, at the end of the document there's a quote from Brust in response to the person identifying Brigitta too much with art:

"remember that binding a character to a symbol was something I did in the first draft, and found it didn't work, so well before I got to the final draft (There were four full rewrites with that book) all the characters had been given permission to stop being symbols and just be themselves."
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
Tapsi: Thank you, it's great to have a definitive answer about "taltos". And very interesting to hear your reaction on how it worked for you.

I'm Welsh. When I use my culture-language and mythology in fantasy, it just comes out like blah bog-standard fantasy, because that's what people standardly use. It's interesting to see that in Hungary, Brust's (to me) exotic things come over as normal.
Liza .
11. aedifica
Jo, if that last comment is a reference to your Sulien books, I disagree--I don't find them blah nor bog-standard! (In fact, I've caught myself wishing that they had been written by someone other than you so that you could review them here; I'd enjoy reading those reviews. *grin*)
the zedmeister
12. Foxessa
Taltos can refer to several things: * A creature from Hungarian tradition (see Táltos , sometimes a human being similar to Shaman but often his/her horse, called the Taltos Horse, who has sometimes magical or superficial power. * A fortune telling tea cup, hand-painted with zodiacal images (the Taltos Cup of Fortune), first manufactured in England in 1970 and given away through a contest co-sponsored by Brooke Bond PG Tips tea. * A Hungarian folk music string band, Ensemble Taltos, formed in 1984. (http://www.musicart.hu/taltos/index-en.htm) * A book by Steven Brust (see Taltos (Steven Brust novel) published in 1988. * A book by Anne Rice (see Taltos (novel) published in 1994.


Or so it says here.

I know no Hungarian.
Alexx Kay
13. AlexxKay
"There’s the whole thing of killing Verra and stopping sorcery from working. It’s a very weird book, and I suspect it contains some keys to the universe if only I could see them clearly."

Some further keys that may help you, in conjunction with this one:

* The word that is translated into english as "necromancy" has to do both with the magic of death -- and of location. The Necromancer is from another plane of existence, and her mastery of dimensional travel is part of what makes her The Necromancer. At various times in the series, we see necromancy used as a more advanced form of teleportation.

* One of the defined qualities of a god is the ability to be in multiple places at once.

* The detailed Serioli names of the Great Weapons (as discussed in _Dragon_) also suggest that 'death' may be more a matter of *position* than of anything else.
William Hassinger
14. iObject
I believe it's in Issola where Verra says that she is essentially omnipresent and can be in many places at once, except for one and that Fenarians are responsible. Also that it wasn't Vlad's ancestors who were responsible. I don't remember if she implicated Cawti at that stage, but somewhere along the lines, either in Palace or Issola it is implied that Cawti is the child from the end of the story.

Verra's Granddaughter also makes an appearance, which suggests a connection to the Vlad series.
Avram Grumer
15. avram
If I remember correctly, the blurb on the back says something about jhereg circling overhead, as if the blurb writer wanted to assure prospective buyers that there was a connection to the Dragaera books.

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