Back when paperbacks were first invented, Penguin used to sell their books with orange covers that told you nothing but the name of the book and the name of the author. A little later, when they got more sophisticated, they started to use different colours for different genres, black for classics, turquoise for non-fiction, orange for literature, purple for travel and green for crime. They never had one colour for SF and fantasy, but Gollancz did: yellow—the sight of a yellow spine still makes me happy. The original Penguins didn’t have back cover blurbs or anything, just the author’s name and the book’s title. I suppose they thought that would be enough for anyone to know whether they wanted it—if you think of old leather bound books, that’s what they were like, after all. You’d probably heard of them, and if not, and if you wanted to know what they were about, you read them.
Steven Brust’s Agyar is the only one book that I feel ought to have an edition like that, entirely unmarked except perhaps for genre in the most general terms. When my husband saw that I was reading Agyar, he pursed his lips and said “That’s going to be hard to talk about.” The problem is that while it’s a story that’s worth re-reading knowing everything, you still don’t want to spoil the joy of reading it for the first time without knowing anything about it. The thing is that it’s a completely different book when you first read it and when you re-read it knowing. It’s a good book either way, but it’s something where you want to have both experiences. And usually with some big spoiler thing, everyone delights in spoiling it and telling you about Rosebud and Bruce Willis and all of that. You wouldn’t believe how many books have spoilers in their back-cover material. But with Agyar I’ve noticed for years that people very carefully talk around it and use spoiler space because it’s not like that. The thing that Brust does here that’s most interesting is the way he takes the expectation inherent in the way people tell stories and does something with that. It’s like Attic red-figure vases—the action is in what you’d expect to be blank space, and the pattern reverses.
It has a contemporary setting. It’s kind of urban fantasy. It’s the only book on this subject I like. If you like good writing you might like it too.
Spoilers from here on!
It’s really normal to leave things out of a story, and Brust plays with that. And it’s normal to use a certain kind of metaphor, and a certain kind of indirectness. When you read something like:
I kissed her temple, her ear, and her neck. We sank down onto the bed, still holding each other.
I ran my hands along her body. Yes indeed, she was a dancer, or an acrobat, or a swimmer. She was strong, inside and out. I touched her and she shivered; she touched me and I trembled. I felt her enter the maelstrom of sensation at the same time I did, and we explored it together. She made low moaning sounds of pleasure, while mine were harsh and animallike, but the urgency was mutual.
You immediately read into that what you expect goes into the spaces. People write about sex like that when they’re not writing porn. That it isn’t sex, that her neck is what’s significant, is a level of indirection that’s really quite astonishing.
There’s also the thing where he mentions Byron saying something and you assume he’s read it, but no. The length of Jack’s life and the nature of his experience creeps up on you.
I generally hate vampires, and one of the reasons is because of the whole confusion of sex and death around them. Yet I really admire what Brust’s doing here—I admire it more than I like it, because I really don’t like vampires. I don’t read Agyar often. This is the fourth time I’ve read it. I read it, and I re-read it again right away, which is what I suppose people always do with this more than anything—I always say a second reading completes the reading anyway. This was my Halloween reading this year. It’s a magnificent achievement, whether you’re figuring out what’s happening or whether you’re watching it knowingly. And it’s a good story, with an interestingly alien viewpoint. I love Jim the ghost.
Amazing book. Nothing else like it.
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.