I’ve previously been a big fan of Brust’s writing, but I found The Paths of the Dead, the first part of Brust’s Viscount of Adrilankha sub-trilogy, to be almost unreadable. What should have been a one-chapter joke of tortured-but-amusing verbal gymnastics stretched on and on and on. It went quickly from amusing to irritating to painful to tortuous. I finished the book, but had no thought of reading further in the series, no matter how great my interest in the world’s history or the characters’.
Still, years went by, and I saw this third volume of the sub-trilogy at a discount store. I almost never read books out of sequence, but I’ve always liked Sethra Lavode, so I thought I’d give it a try. I’m sorry to say that not only has Brust not given up the joke, he seems to have double down on it. The result was just as infuriating as the first time around, and there’s remarkably little substance to go with the verbal acrobatics. In fact, it seems the plot is more a vehicle for the word games than the main intent.
Others have claimed that Brust is consciously emulating Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, and in fact the tone and the structure (a trilogy in which the final volume is so massive that it is broken down into smaller books) are similar. I’m just not sure what the purpose was. We have Dumas’ book already; recreating it in a fantasy world doesn’t add much. And while I can forgive Dumas’ style given its temporal distance, Brust doesn’t have that excuse. He’s stretched a very thin joke into a vast and unwelcoming journey in which the language is an obstacle that keeps you from admiring the scenery. It’s one thing when that’s an author’s natural style (as with Lawrence Durrell), but another when the author can write well, but chooses cleverness over quality.
I’d still like to know what happened in the middle volume, but I can’t see subjecting myself to it any time soon. It’s frustrating that Brust, clearly a talented and inventive writer, seems lately to have done so little with his skill – this extended linguistic joke, and the occasional formulaic extension of the Jhereg series. Where is the author of To Reign in Hell, Cowboy Feng’s Bar and Grille, or even Brokedown Palace? Maybe at some point Brust will finish having his fun, stop coasting, and write something new.
Roger Zelazny said “Watch Steven Brust.” At his urging, I’ve been doing that, and for a while I enjoyed it. But I’m starting to wonder who took the original, and why they left this smirking jokester in his place.