Book Review: The Paths of the Dead by Steven Brust
I’m a sucker for the dollar rack at the used bookstore.
I mean, what’s not to like? The dollar bin is the realm of the forgotten and obscure, a realm of hazy nostalgia and crazy-ass covers. And if whatever you’ve found turns out to be terrible, you’re only out a dollar. There’s not much you can get for a buck nowadays.
But sometimes, it’s possible to find something in the dollar bin that’s actually, you know, good. Which brings us to Steven Brust’s The Paths of the Dead.
Amusingly enough, even the cover of the copy of Paths of the Dead I snagged tells a story. Not in the ‘moody guy with a sword’ sense (as cover art goes, The Paths of the Dead is fairly dull) but rather … on its price stickers. See, as best I can figure, someone once bought this book for the publisher mandated $7.99 (or maybe $10.99 Canadian, who knows), at which point they traded it in to a used bookstore. Said bookstore slapped a price sticker on the book and sold it for $4 to a second reader, who, when done, went and traded it to a different used bookstore, who put their stamp on the inside cover and sold it for $3.95 according to the stamp on the inside cover and the little penciled in price. Another reader picked it up, read it, and traded it to a third used bookstore, who tried to sell it for $2.99 before finally cutting it down to a buck, at which point I scooped it up. I don’t know why I find this so interesting, but I do.
In any case, it wasn’t the cover, or even the stickers on the cover that prompted me to pick up The Paths of the Dead. See, I’ve read Steven Brust’s fantasy before (albeit quite some time ago). Brust has written a bunch of fantasy books centered around a world called Dragera. As a setting, Dragera’s serviceable enough– Brust plays some fantasy tropes straight, and puts a subversive twist on others. The main thing about the Dragera books is that the dominant race in the setting is the elves … but the elves just call themselves “human” because … well, why wouldn’t they? I mean, if you’re in charge, I guess you get to call yourself whatever you want, even if you’ve got pointy ears and a lifespan that lasts centuries.
So yeah. There are two “branches” of Dragera books– the ‘main’ one is the Vlad Taltos series, which centers around a fantasy crimelord/assassin guy as he goes around doing, well, crimey assassin-y stuff. They’re pretty good, from what I remember of the ones I read a few years ago. But, The Paths of the Dead is part of the other branch, the “Khaavren Romances.”
Basically, the “Khaavren Romances” are Brust’s take on the Three Musketeers. The conceit is that these books are all in-universe “historical fiction,” as written by an in-universe historian by the name of Paarfi. Brust, ostensibly, is just the translator. It’s a fun little idea, and one that’s exceedingly well executed. Brust’s voice as Paarfi is a highlight of these books, as everything is written in the style of a lofty and verbose novel from the 19th century. Paarfi is prone to digression and distraction in his efforts to inform the kind reader just all the little details of what happened some centuries ago. It’s a dense style of writing, one that takes a little bit of effort to make it through, but at the same time there are many little gems and turns of phrase that make the intentionally archaic style worth it. Heck, even the chapter titles themselves are hilarious. For example:
“Chapter the Twelfth
How the Author, Forced Against His Will
To Write of the Viscount’s Travels,
Attempts, for the Sake of the Reader,
To Make Travel Interesting”
The Paths of the Dead is the third in the Khaavren Romances– the first two books being The Phoenix Guards and Five Hundred Years Later. Basically, they’re big swashbuckly adventures that are more than a little inspired by Dumas’ Musketeer novels. Khaavren is pretty much elf-D’Artagnan, with various other characters filling in the various roles. (Tazendra, who is basically elf-Porthos, was my favorite).
But while the characters may be inspired by Dumas, the plot takes its own course, as by the end of Five Hundred Years Later, an empire has collapsed due to an apocalyptic magical disaster, one that has killed the true Emperor and left the elves without the magic came to rely on. And so, some two hundred years after this disaster, a warlord (who honestly doesn’t seem like that bad of a guy) starts working to rebuild the empire and set himself up as emperor. Of course, it so happens that the true heir to the throne is still alive (having been raised in disguise, natch) and so she must go a-questing to the titular Paths of the Dead to retrieve the book’s MacGuffin, a magical Orb that was the source of the old empire’s magic.
This is really, really simplifying the book, as The Paths of the Dead has a cast of dozens, including the Elf-Musketeers and their children, as well as a varied assortment of wizards, sorceresses, bandits, servants, nobles, and the occasional princess. With such a large number of characters spread out through a bunch of noble houses, I was reminded of Carey’s Kushiel books– only, y’know, without all the kinky stuff.
The Paths of the Dead is the first in a trilogy– or, depending on how you want to look at it, it’s the first volume of The Viscount of Adrilankha. Again, this is a direct riff on Dumas’ three-volume The Vicomte of Bragelonne. Either way, The Paths of the Dead has an acute case of first-in-a-series-itis, as it spends most of its time introducing its various characters and moving them into place for the next novel. There’s a climactic moment at the end, sure, but at the same time, by the end of the book, the throne is still unclaimed, and the grand forces being marshalled have yet to truly start butting against each other. Even still, Brust-as-Paarfi’s voice is entertaining enough that even the process of moving these chess pieces into place is a fun read. I’d recommend the Khaavren Romances to anybody who’s not afraid of the whole in-character writing voice and the dense style. This said, you’d do well to just start with The Phoenix Guards so you have a better idea of who’s who and just WTF is going on.
Amusingly enough, I have the final book/volume of The Viscount of Adrilankha, but not the middle one. So I guess I’ll just have to keep on the lookout for a copy of The Lord of Castle Black before I can continue with the series. So here’s to hoping I’ll get lucky next time I dig through the dollar bin.