The Lord of Castle Black - Steven Brust

A review for Usenet (or see Google archive).

The Lord of Castle Black
Book Two of The Viscount of Adrilankha
Steven Brust
ISBN 0312855826 (Amazon Link )

This is bad form I know, but I can' t resist commenting on the cover before the actual book inside. I'll be even handed about this, first I shall complain, then I shall applaud.

Firstly, the complaint. Is there someone at Tor dedicated to making sure that Brust doesn't sell? I am aware that the publishing genre Brust is perceived to be writing in [1] has certain conventional cover styles, and I'm equally aware that the US market prefers a different style of cover art than, say, the UK (although there are some damn ugly covers here too), but really, is there any need to make The Lord of Castle Black's cover quite so garish? I'll be honest, the turquoise and orange text would have scared me off any other title. So, assume our intrepid book buyer sees past the font - perhaps they are colour blind - what next? Agh, the devious cover artist has a cunning plan - let's make Morrolan look like Travolta. Good grief.

On the gripping hand, I have to applaud the back and inside cover. I love the inside blurb:
"Journeys! Intrigue! Sword fights! Young persons having adventures! Beloved older characters having adventures, too! Quests! Battles! Romance! Snappy dialogue! Extravagant food! And the missing heir to the Imperial Throne!"

That's good, but the back cover has a quote by Neil Gaiman which is better:
"Delightful, exciting, and sometimes brilliant, Steven Brust is the latest in a line of great Hungarian writers, which (I have no doubt) includes Alexandre Dumas, C. S. Forester, Mark Twain, and the author of the juciest bits of the Old Testament." [2]

Glorious isn't it?

Onto the content. The Lord of Castle Black, Book Two of The Viscount of Adrilankha isn't a novel intended for casual readers to pick up and enjoy. This is not just book two in a series, this is book two of the third volume of a series, The Khaavren Romances, itself a prequel to another series, the Vlad Taltos novels, which currently number nine. In addition, it's important to realise that The Khavreen Romances are written as Dumas pastiches, so full enjoyment requires reading at least some of those. The Viscount of Adrilankha for example is loosely based on the events of Dumas' The Viscount of Bragelonne [3]. This is a daunting reading requirement for a new reader, why should they bother? Simple - because Brust writes some of the most interesting fantasy novels around.

(The Vlad Taltos novels are on-going by the way, and it's getting interesting watching Brust start to play the series off against each other a little. I would make sure to read both series in strict publication order to avoid inadvertent cross-series spoilerage.)

The Vlad Taltos novels started life as original but light fantasy, based loosely around a fantasy world set in a urban area, controlled by organised crime. Early novels featured the early career of an enforcer, Vlad, of the Jhereg, a house of low status and criminal interests. Brust could write, but early outings were basically capers, with asides on preparing egg dishes. Later novels became much more interesting, and much darker, after personal events in the author's life led him to reconsider his hero's career. Certainly it's a long way from the light fluff of Jhereg to the dramatic scenes in Dragon and Issola, and then to the sophisticated amusements on offer in The Lord of Castle Black. (Personally, I'm missing the advice on cooking eggs a little.)

The central conceit of The Khaavren Romances is that they are written by Paarfi, a fussy, courtly historian. His authorial voice is both the strength, and great weakness, of the novels. At first, I was delighted by the mock formal tone, and revelled in the obvious parallels between The Phoenix Guards and The Three Musketeers. The fun continued in Five Hundred Years After, but I started to have misgivings while reading The Paths of the Dead. These misgivings have grown, and I have to admit that I didn't really enjoy Brust's latest offering that much. Oh, sure, it's better than 95% of the books on my shelves, and I devoured it in a day, but still...

So, what's wrong? The Lord of Castle Black should be seething with interest - the Interregnum is over, with the Phoenix heir emerging from the Paths of the Dead, challenged by a Dragon who would be emperor, Kana, leader of an immense army. Into this heady historical mix we add the origins of Morrolan, a central character in the Vlad books. Other events surround the ever mysterious Sethra Lavode, and the machinations of the gods themselves, including the mysterious Demon Goddess Verra, who has such an interest in both Morrolan and Vlad.

Sounds good? Well, the problem I think is partly that Paarfi has always enabled Brust to play games. We don't really see what happened, or how it happened. We see what Paarfi reports, and I suspect that what Paarfi reports is coloured by what Paarfi wants to report, and is certainly presented how Paarfi wants. All of which is fine, but I'm tiring a little of Paarfi - he's a one trick pony, and the convoluted discursive style that so amused me in earlier romances is now over-used and irritating. As an aside, it's not a matter of romantic voice - I've recently read Sabatini's Scaramouche, which while not Dumas, is close enough for government work. Besides, I've read my Dumas often enough to be comfortable with his voice, or at least the common translations. I'm in the middle of reading Sabatini's The Banner of the Bull, and the thing I keep noticing is the density of the wit and wordplay in each paragraph. Dumas is the same, the central story is complemented by a prose style which actually has style in the best sense; events are layered into the narrative.

Like Brust, I'm a huge admirer of this classic style, but I feel Paarfi's voice needs more depth, currently Brust seems to me to be unsure how best to employ his affected perspective on events. I keep looking for more clues that Paarfi is an unreliable narrator, that there are inconsistencies in there which are clues to the real story... but I'm not finding much to work with. I do admit that there are moments of genius however, for example I rather enjoyed Paarfi's apology to his reader that the publisher is forcing him to publish one story in multiple physical volumes. On the whole though, Paarfi's voice has come to seem over-affected, distorting events, in particular the dialogue, to a degree which prevents my full involvement, without seeming to be part of a coherent world-view - too much affection, too little style.

Aside from the wearying Paarfi, there exist problems with the actual events. I think Brust has been a victim of his own success, and has managed to fall into the trap of all authors who tackle a prequel. Certain events and locations in the Vlad novels resonate with meaning - the Interregnum is one, Castle Black is another. The backstory of Morrolan is one of my particular favourites - he's a fascinating cross-cultural oddity, and as a the enigmatic holder of a Great Weapon, whose soul is in love with Morrolan, there is plenty here for Brust fan's to theorise about, based on hints an asides in several previous titles.

Some of these appealing rich backgrounds are on display in The Lord of Castle Black, and I was underwhelmed by them... I felt distanced from the events, no doubt partly Paarfi's intent?, but I doubt that the origin of, say, Castle Black itself was meant to seem quite so ... mundane. Without spoiling things for you, Morrolan stumbles across it, decides to build it, builds it. All very straight-forward and uninteresting. Sadly, seeing some of the these events first hand has actually robbed them of their implied mystery and interest from the previous novels. Another minor example - one of the Vlad novels featured an encounter with a evil necromancer. In this novel we see how that character came to be - and it's really rather dull, of interest only to the completist who enjoys seeing the world-building jigsaw being built.

The last problem is that, well, I just didn't really feel involved with the characters as much as I should have. They're a likeable enough bunch and some of the dialogue was hugely diverting, but the youngsters, like Piro, Khaavreen's son, lack the sympathy and engaging depth of the older generation like Pel or Tazendra. Basically, I just didn't become emotionally engaged with them to any great extent, and personally felt that passion was missing from this book - even the Big Love Story came down to a cliched conversation about noodles. It was amusing enough in its own way, but it only filled a page, and won't provide much dramatic material - we're not talking Romeo and Juliet... Much of the book felt like this - things happened, but I failed to be excited by them - few mysteries were presented (see later), few mysteries were solved to my satisfaction (the origin of Black Wand in particular was an anti-climax), long awaited events just ... happened.

To be fair, this is worse than the middle book in a trilogy, and it ends on a heck of a cliff-hanger. I will still rush out and buy the sequel, which I think is to be called Sethra Lavode (not sure what Dumas volume that equates to), but I am doing so in the hope that the dramatic cliff-hanger - which got me hooked on the last couple of pages! Too late! - marks a return to Brust's old form. I certainly think that there are several plot threads now dangling which promise a fascinating resolution.

From anyone else this would be a wonderful book, from Brust it's a bit disappointing, one to be re-read as part of the completed series, but not for its own sake.

[1] To a book chain this title is going to shelved under 'Fantasy', along with Shannara and Star Trek. That's a pity, but understandable, as I don't generally see bookshop sections conveniently dedicated to those authors who, not content with perverting genre expectations, decide to go one further and write cross-over prequels in the style of classic French romantics!

[2] I've been told that this quote actually appears on early Brust titles and isn't specific to The Lord of Castle Black. Gaiman also supplies an amusing afterword.

[3] Good luck finding an English copy of Dumas' complete series. Episodes are available, but I haven't seen an edition containing later episodes other than, say, The Man in the Iron Mask. Even Twenty Years After is a bit difficult to find!

Posted: Sun - August 31, 2003 at 12:16 AM