“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.


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