Sunday, September 30, 2007

Jessica Recommends The Phoenix Guards

It’s time for another edition of

Jessica Recommends a Book!

You probably won't like Steven Brust's The Phoenix Guards. I say that with some confidence, not because I dislike it myself, but because, statistically speaking, 9 of 11 people I’ve lent it to have returned it unfinished. Nevertheless, it is one of my favorites. Consider the following note about the geography around the Imperial Palace:
“At any rate, the aforementioned Vallista reign saw, in addition to the construction of the Imperial Palace, the creation for the first time of forts and fortresses (the distinction, certain comments by the Lord of Snails notwithstanding, having nothing whatsoever to do with the presence of breastworks, nor the size of buttresses) along what was then the Eastern border. The construction of the Great Houses around the Imperial Palace did not begin until the Second Cycle, with the reign of Kieron the Younger, of the House of the Dragon. He ordered the building of the Great House of the Phoenix, opposite the Palace, as a tribute to Empress Zerika II, or possibly as a bribe to persuade her to relinquish the throne – history is unclear on this.”The Phoenix Guards, page 30.

If your eyes glazed over, believe me, you’re not alone. But if this lecture about the architectural history of a fictional palace complex made you smirk, well....

At its core, this is a deadpan parody of The Three Musketeers. Not just the absurdities of manners and customs exhibited in the book, but also the persistent quality of narrative voice in nineteenth century romances, where the narrator’s character is just as apparent as those he pontificates about. And the narrator does pontificate. He expounds endlessly and inventively about the history of places and people and regional cuisine our heroes encounter in their adventures, often spending more time discussing the history of the inn than the ambush our heroes actually thwart at the inn.

That is not to say the characters are in any way lacking. Our heroes are delightful re-imaginings of the classic four Musketeers, recognizable in archetype but with their own flavor. For example, one of the four appears as a woman. But rather than take the easy route, with the woman in the place of the foppish schemer Aramis, Tazendra takes the role of the brash warrior Porthos, always a step behind in the planning but taking the lead in battle. The other three, Khaavren, Aerich, and Pel, each have their own charms.

Oh, and did I mention the swashbuckling? Because they have rather a lot of that. There are epic duels, invading armies, love, rivalry, revenge… What more could you ask for?

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