Nov 27 2009 3:45pm

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.

Sara H
1. LadyBelaine

"The Fight crime! And they have adventures!"


The blurbs on one of the later Khaavren books (the newer trilogy) has something like "Old friends reunite and have adventures! New friends have adventures too!'

That makes me squeal every time I see it. It's just exuberantly fun.
Elio García
2. Egarcia
For a long while, to the time I stopped posting at rec.arts.sf.written and using Usenet in general, this was my signature:

"And it was well done, too. I'd have done the same, only-"
"I don't paint."

Great book.
Tex Anne
3. TexAnne
I've often said that _The Phoenix Guards_ is the best Dumas translation out there. Except it isn't really true--Dumas' narrator is all about the deadpan snark, whereas Paarfi is much better company. And while Dumas' characters tend to be types with occasional flashes of humanity, Brust couldn't write a cardboard cutout if he tried.

You can tell I haven't read any Paarfi lately because I'm using my normal syntax to discuss him. In my experience, channeling Paarfi is a nearly unavoidable pleasure.
David Goldfarb
4. David_Goldfarb
I have a strong suspicion that magic wasn't quite so difficult nor rare during this period as Paarfi portrays it. I think Paarfi doesn't like magic, and rewrites his histories to downplay it.

(Two a's in "Tortaalik", btw.)
5. theclumsyninja
The Phoenix Guards and its sequels are some of the most enjoyable fantasy (or science fiction masquerading as fantasy) I've ever read. I love how Paarfi continually portrays exquisitely polite dialogue, whether between mortal enemies or close friends. Obviously he is an untrustworthy narrator, but the books are all the more delightful because of it.

On a more general note, I've really been enjoying the reviews of the series, and am considering trying to reread all of the books before the next one comes out. I think I've read the series twice but know I'll get something new out of another reread.
brightening glance
6. brightglance
Iain Banks' latest has a conversation which reminds me distinctly of these books.


Well then, what do you do sir?
I am a traveller. And you?
The same.
Indeed. You travel widely?
Very. You?
Oh, extraordinarily.
Do you travel to a purpose?
A series of purposes. Yourself?
Always with only one.
And what would that be?
Well, you must guess.
Must I?
Oh yes.

- and so on.
Sol Foster
7. colomon
I remember when the Phoenix Guards first came out in paperback, back in college. There were three of us sharing an apartment, and one of us (I don't even remember who now) bought a copy on a Friday afternoon. By Saturday noon all three of us had read the first chapter in that first copy and the other two had bought their own copy so that we didn't have to wait one moment longer than necessary to read it. We all spent the weekend lounging around the apartment reading Paarfi. The best of times.
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
David: What an interesting thought. That ties nicely into something I've been thinking about Five Hundred Years After when he talks at such length about how amazing it was that Sethra teleported Aliera, when he must have been writing at a time (and for an audience) when people teleported themselves and each other as easy as boiled asparagus. Doesn't like magic. Hmm. That might be why he's chosen to write about the Interregnum, too.
john mullen
9. johntheirishmongol
I have been expecting this post, and, egad! I have found it!

This book has given me much joy. I was a fan of Dumas long before I read this book, but this is Dumas as done in the 3 Musketeers movie with Gene Kelly, with exhuberance and laughter and heart.

One of the things I have done is recommend this book to a couple of people who think fantasy is a low level of fiction.
Alexx Kay
10. AlexxKay
"This was Brust’s first book for Tor, though he continued to publish with Ace as well for a few more books."

Without further comment, I present an excerpt from _Phoenix_, of Vlad discussing musical agents with a colleague (pages 96-97 in the paperback original):
"Name some names."
"Sure. There's a woman named Aisse. I wouldn't work with her, though."
"Why not?"
He shrugged. "She never seems to know quite what she's doing. And when she does, she never lets the musicians know. Word is she lies a lot, especially when she screws up."
"Okay. Who else?"
"There's a fellow named Phent who doesn't lie quite as much, but he's about as incompetent and he charges twice what everyone else does. He's got a lock on the low-life places. They suit him."
"I might need him. Where can I find him?"
"Number fourteen Fishmonger Street."
"Okay, who else?"
"There's Greenbough. He's not too bad when he isn't drunk. D'Rai will keep you working, but she'll also get a hold on you and try to keep everything you play sounding the same. Most of the musicians I know don't like that."
"Blood of the goddess, Sticks, isn't there anyone good in the business?"
"Not really. The best of the lot is an outfit run by three Easterners named Tomas, Oscar, and Ramon. They have South Adrilankha and a few of the better inns north of town."
Clifton Royston
13. CliftonR
How interesting, AlexxKay. I never would have noticed that in that passage, though I've read it at least a couple times.
Jo Walton
14. bluejo
AlexxKay, Clifton: I almost talked about that in my Phoenix review and then I thought "What if Ace had never noticed, and then they saw it on and thought we were gloating!" They clearly can't have noticed before it was in print.

Yours on behalf of those very considerate Easterners who hate hurting people's feelings, Tomas, Oscar and Ramon. Not to mention the First Jhereg Armoured Division...
R. P.
15. aryllian
How I love the Khaavren books!

But I'm pretty sure it does do some actual retelling of The Three Musketeers, more or less, although the interesting thing is that the phoenix guards are slightly different characters who are simply much cooler than the musketeers they correspond to :) (or, if you prefer, who have slightly different priorities and sensibilities), so things don't turn out quite the same for them.

They go off on a quest and meet almost exactly the same road blocks as the musketeers do (or at least recognizably similar ones -- as I recall from when I noticed this, which wasn't the first time through, but it's been a while, so I might not have the details exactly perfect). Anyway, the phoenix guards react differently and end up continually adding people to their group and becoming stronger, instead of being picked off one by one.

I've never actually read it specifically to figure out the ways it uses stuff or changes stuff from The Three Musketeers, where and how and to what purpose, but I'm pretty sure it would be interesting to do so, and I think there's probably a lot that I've missed by not reading with that specifically in mind. But then, I'm pretty sure there's more to it than what comes from The Three Musketeers, too. Such enjoyment.

As I said, how I love these books :)
16. Bob316
Brust obviously loved writing like Dumas and the whole musketeer spirit while writing. The Phoenix Guards was good, but the sequels were really awesome and showed more and more history of Dragaeara.
Tex Anne
17. TexAnne
I die. A Jhereg trips over my body, thereby assassinating the wrong Dragonlord. The Empire is plunged into bloody civil war. In the chaos, the Jenoine come back. All die. O the embarrassment.

I thought I knew my sf industry, but I have no idea what Phent, #14 Fishmonger St, and Greenbough are meant to be in this world.
Liza .
18. aedifica
TexAnne, the way I read it Number 14 Fishmonger St is the address of Phent (and I can't figure out what publisher that is either). Greenbough might be Greenwillow Press?
Tex Anne
19. TexAnne
*facepalm* Thank you, yes, of course it's Greenwillow. One down, one to go!
20. skzb
Mike Fent was a music booking agent in Minneapolis. Another Minneapolis agent was Jim Green ... um ... something. Don't remember any more. Nate Bucklin would remember.
Tex Anne
21. TexAnne
Ah, so I can revivify myself! I thought I'd lost my touch. Thanks!
Sherwood Smith
22. Sartorias
Not only do I love these books to shiny pieces, but I like to refer to them as examples of how a narrative voice can make infodumps vastly entertaining.
Rene Sears
23. rene
Oh heck yes, Sartorias. The entire paragraph about Bengloaford has me rolling on the floor every time I read it. One example of many.
24. William H Stoddard
I tried reading The Phoenix Guards, and bogged down. Then I tried reading Five Hundred Years After, and somehow something in my brain shifted, and I not only was able to read it but was able to go back and read The Phoenix Guards all the way through and have it become my favorite Brust. It makes me laugh and it makes me care intensely about the four characters, both at once.

The style seems to be somewhat contagious. When a friend ran a campaign set at the end of the Interregnum, not long after Five Hundred Years After came out, another player and I would have repeated exchanges in Paarfispeak, punctuated with "The Horse!"

That campaign made a strange literary cross connection for me. I decided to play a Dzur who was NOT a sorceror, but simply a skilled duelist and huntsman, and, of course, not very smart. And then I thought of having Tazendra be his aunt. And then suddenly I saw her as once of Bertie Wooster's terrifying fierce aunts, and my character became named Bertran, and his characterization became a hybrid of Bertie Wooster and d'Artagnan. The Code of the Woosters made more sense than I expected for a Dzur.

And as I think I've said before, I can take or leave Brust by himself, but Brust collaborating with Paarfi is utterly delightful. I particularly cherish their biographies of each other.
25. eli fiati
hey i read this book way back in 2000. and still cherish. lend it to a friend which never return and im gonna get a new one soon

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