The Phoenix Guards by Steven Brust. Adventure with a flourish.

The Phoenix Guards
Recommended for: fans of epic fantasy, comrades-in-arms
read count: after three, who counts?
★   ★   ★  ★  ★

Swashbuckling adventure! Sinister plots against the Empire! Will good friends, honor and friendliness prevail?

In all reviewer honesty, I’ve had this book for a number of years now (fine; since I bought the paperback release in 1992. Yes, Grasshopper, I’m that old) and have re-read it more than a few times since. I’m re-reading it now with Fantasy Aficionados so it’s time to trumpet its virtues.

Apparently told in the style of The Three Musketeers (which I have not read), Brust goes one better by setting it in an interesting fantasy world and giving us a female fighter in the foursome. Like Dumas, Brust uses the background premise of a manuscript by another author, only in this case, the book is a “notebook” created by a historian surrounding events that preceded the fall of the Empire. It is part of a stand-alone duo set in the same world as the Vlad Taltos series, centering on events that contributed to the Interregnum, a significant world-event that continues to have consequences in Vlad’s time.

The plot centers around four young adults heading to the capital city to join the Dragon guard, seeking fame, adventure or a trade (alas, no fire-breathing dragons here). The narrative chiefly focuses on Khaavren, an impoverished country noble seeking a trade. Lacking the sorcerery skills of Tazendra, the deviousness of Pell, or the quiet thoughtfulness of Aerich, he relies on his interest and open demeanor as he finds his way in the city. Together the four are formidable. Though not blood-thirsty, preserving honor is important and they are involved in more than their share of duels defending themselves or each other. Although they don’t realize it, they are about to play a role in the politics of the nation as one of them seeks to win a lady’s affection. There are swords, and sorcery; plots to overthrow the throne, and plots to support it. Hands will be kissed, brigands defeated, friends made, and rescues attempted.

Dialogue is formal and ornate, with much verbal fencing:
“‘It is not a word,’ said Pel, tossing his cloak over his shoulder so that the elegant hilt of his blade was visible, ‘that pleases my ears.’
‘Well,’ said the lady who had spoken first, ‘I confess that your ears are of only a little concern to me.’
‘But,’ said Pel, bowing politely, ‘your tongue is of great concern to me.’
‘For my part,’ said Khaavren, ‘I am concerned with her feet.’
‘How,’ said Aerich, who stood between Pel and Khaavren. ‘Her feet?’
‘Indeed. For if she will use them to move from these cramped quarters, well, I will do her the honor of showing her what my arm can do.'”

With a fair amount of sly asides and subtle banter, this isn’t really a laugh-out-loud book; rather it acknowledges the occasional humorous note in clever word-play. For instance:
“‘It’s amazing!’ he [Khaavren] cried to his companions.
Pel smiled complacently, but Tazendra touched his arm and said in a low voice, “Come! Not so loud. Everyone will think that you come from the duchies.’
A puzzled look crossed Khaavren’s countenance. ‘But I do come from the duchies.’
This time, the look of puzzlement crossed Tazendra’s features, while Aerich smiled.”

I remember on first read, the initial sections with Paarfi, the self-absorbed and pompous ‘chronicler,’ as being confusing and distracting. I found them more amusing on the second and third reads. Brust uses a potentially risky technique here of referencing popular works/events within the world of the book, so although the reader remains clueless as to the actual reference, the meaning usually comes clear. “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).” Also, if this is your first entry into Brust’s Dragaeran Empire, the social structure takes awhile to piece together. While basically a feudal society, people are members of one of seventeen Houses, or genetic lineages that tend to specific characteristics and traits. Part of the challenge the first time through is piecing the social structure together.

The plotting is complex, and sheer perfection when it comes together at the end. This is a well-crafted book that should appeal to those who love a complex epic fantasy (Malazan, anyone?). It only improves with re-reading, as the extent to which the characters are subject to behind-the-scenes forces becomes clear. When coupled with the Vlad series, it provides a fascinating historical insight into a complex world.

Four-and-a-half comradely stars.

Ps. I’m fairly certain there is a sneaky little homage to The Princess Bride tucked away in chapter twenty-six.
“‘You use that word again, Garland.’
‘Well, and is it not a perfectly good word, your ladyship?’
‘Oh, I have no quarrel with the word.’
‘And then?’
‘But its application in this case.’
‘I must hold to it, your ladyship.’
‘And yet I declare that the thing is impossible.'”

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About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
This entry was posted in Book reviews, Epic fantasy, fantasy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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