Dec 14 2009 4:24pm

“The time about which I have the honor to write”: Steven Brust’s The Viscount of Adrilankha

The Viscount of Adrilankha is a three volume novel consisting of The Paths of the Dead (2002), The Lord of Castle Black (2003) and Sethra Lavode (2004). I’m writing about them together because it feels to me that they are best considered as one work, divided into a beginning, a middle and an end for bookbinding purposes. All the Paarfi books are loosely connected by continuing characters and a developing world, but these three are really one story.

One of the things reading half a ton of Brust together does is make me realise how unquestioned the defaults of secondary-world fantasy are. Fantasy has a certain look and feel and style of conversation and tech level—and more than that, there’s an expected mood, an expectation of the kind of serious it will be. There are exceptions, of course, but they are just that. There’s no inherent reason why you can’t have swashbuckling musketeer-style fantasy with dialogue that flashes like rapiers, but you need to justify it, as you don’t need to justify a story of rivals for a medieval throne. As for the seriousness, there’s certainly funny fantasy but a great deal of it consists of making fun of the concept, not much of it makes you laugh aloud at the humour inherent in the situation. With Brust’s books, you laugh for the same reason a reader inside the world would laugh, even if you occasionally say “ah-ha!” with knowledge you bring from outside.

This three volume novel is best enjoyed as a historical novel set within the fantasy world of Dragaera. It’s historical accuracy is right up there with Dumas writing the nice and accurate history of France. Paarfi, the writer within the world, has a wonderful voice and a lovely way of putting things, he’s slightly pompous, slightly dignified, he tries to be accurate but gets carried away in his own enthusiasm. He’s a lovely person to spend time with as are his, and Brust’s, characters. I understand that not everybody will get excited over chapter titles variously explaining whether the battle going on is the ninth or tenth battle of Dzur Mountain, but if that sort of thing delights you, then you should certainly read these books. I’d still suggest starting with The Phoenix Guards though I see no real reason why these don’t stand alone.

Mild spoilers.

Historically, The Viscount of Adrilankha is the story of the end of the Interregnum and the re-establishment of the Empire. The three volumes divide neatly into “introducing all the characters and setting them in place,” “Zerika returns with the orb and wins a battle,” and “re-establishing the empire is more complicated than that.” On an emotional level they concern the coming of age of Piro, the son of Khaavren, and Khaavren coming to terms with that. There’s also a fair bit about the way Morrolan grows up, and the dealings of Sethra and the gods with the Jenoine. All of this works very well as story and history—and it has some splendid antagonists and excellent plotting.

While the overall plot is effective and affecting, what I like most about these books is the little incidentals—the way Morrolan builds his castle in the air, for instance, sorcery can get it up, and witchcraft can keep it up. I was also charmed by the explanation for the never-ending party. There’s an ah-ha moment for those who have read Teckla when Aerich visits Tazendra’s home and finds a Teckla living there. The chapter titles are adorable. The plots are cunning, but it’s Illista ordering fish that sticks with me. I find Piro and his friends less appealing than Khaavren and his friends, but there’s plenty of the older generation here—and Piro’s dilemma with Ibronka answers something I’ve always wondered about, with regard to the Houses. Zerika’s passage of the Paths of the Dead, and all the debates among the Gods, have to be taken as speculative on Paarfi’s part, not historical, but how interesting, after Issola, that a Jenoine nearly got in. I do wonder why the Interregnum had to be so long. Nothing would have stopped Sethra organizing this as soon as Zerika was old enough, and as Piro’s about a hundred years old, why wait until Zerika was two hundred and fifty?

Onwards to Dzur, my absolute favourite of the whole lot.

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.

Zack Weinberg
1. zwol
I reread these recently and was left wondering why Zerika didn't attempt to coöpt Kâna and Habil. They might not have been willing to make a deal, but it seems like it would have been worth trying.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Zwol: Good point, especially as they were Dragons and young enough to reasonably expect to live to see the Cycle turn.
Zack Weinberg
3. zwol
And, as is said in (I think) Yendi, no Dragon really wants to be Emperor.
john mullen
4. johntheirishmongol
Dragons want to be Warlord, not Emperor.

While these books were interesting, they weren't as much fun as the previous two. I would rather have spent more time with our old friend Khaavren, etc.
Emmet O'Brien
5. EmmetAOBrien
The younger generation being less interesting than the old campaigners is a notable feature of Dumas' later three Musketeers books. It seems possible to me that this is a thing Brust is doing deliberately here.
Maiane Bakroeva
6. Isilel
I have just re-read the first 2 volumes of the Viscount in order to read "Sethra Lavode" that I finally got a short time ago.

So, some fresh thoughts on the trilogy:

"Paths of the Dead" is still the weakest book of the trilogy. I remember my disappointment when I read it first, because it really butchered Morrolan's backstory, IMHO. And while I knew what to expect now, it still seems static and all the characters are awfully passive. Even fights are flat, with opponents (even Grita, even Dragonlords!(sic!)) running away after a few scratches.

I am not sure what Brust was going for here. Channeling Paarfi's paucity of information and his distaste for travelogues and Interregnum? If so he went too far, IMHO.
The best bits are Zerika's jump and soujourn in the titular Paths, as well as anything that involves Tazendra.

"The Lord of Castle Black" is much better. There are meaningful events afoot, the characters display much more initiative, fights suddenly became much more bloody and interesting, etc. It is not just the quartet coming to the fore again - Morrolan also improves a lot and Zerika continues to be interesting. OTOH, I remember being flabbergasted by Piro et al. becoming bandits in the end, again leaving the important events behind. That and some minor RL obstacles stopped me from getting "Sethra Lavode" for so long.

"Sethra Lavode" is my favorite book of the trilogy. The old guard gets massive moments of awesome, steeped in uplifting tragedy, the characters we know and love from Vlad books like Sethra, Zerika and Morrolan continue to unfold in interesting ways, Grita suddenly ceases to be a bumbling Keystone villain and becomes a serious threat, there is an exciting and very well put together battle and subterfuge, etc. Piro and Co thankfully stay in the background with their boring pursuits ;).


On the whole, Piro and Co. are very insubstantial characters and seem shoved in. Maybe Brust went for making them obviously fictional? I dunno, but nothing about them feels real. Not Piro's supposed friendship with Zerika, not them becoming bandits, not his star-crossed romance.

I really don't see why Brust invented Piro's boring posse that had very little to do, when there were already perfectly exciting young characters for Piro to interact with, like Morrolan, Teldra and Zerika.
I still believe Morrolan over Paarfi that he was there at the Deathgate Falls with Zerika! It would have been so much better...

So, while I enjoyed the trilogy on the whole, in no small degree due to seeing characters from Vlad books from a different angle, however imperfectly, and also because the original quartet was still great, it is much less than it could have been, alas.

I'd love to see Vlad interacting with Khaavren and Pel, though. Maybe in future "Tiassa"?

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