Thursday, March 03, 2022

The Baron of Magister Valley by Steven Brust

The impulse is always for the review to mimic the book: that would be most appropriate, yes? Readers who enjoy the review get a taste of what the book is like; readers who find that off-putting or tedious know to stay away. It does assume the reviewer can do something like the book, which is a big assumption.

I'm trying to fight that impulse here; it would amuse me but probably no one else. If my sentences get too ornate further down, know that the impulse has overwhelmed me - I hope only temporarily.

The Baron of Magister Valley is a book written in a deliberately ornate style. The story I heard, many years ago, was that author Steven Brust read 19th century translations of the novels of Alexandre Dumas that were long, over-embellished, and grandiose - read those at a young age, loved them uncritically, and that they helped form his ideas of what fiction, particularly adventure fiction, can be. 

In the 1990s, he retold Dumas's "D'Artagnan" trilogy within his fictional world of Dragaera [1] - first The Phoenix Guards, then Five Hundred Years After, and then a trilogy for the third novel The Viscount of Adrilankha (which was basically a trilogy in Dumas's original): The Paths of the Dead, The Lord of Castle Black, and Sethra Lavode. His main series set in that world, the Vlad Taltos novels, are mostly written in a tight first-person style, as from the point of view of the main character, with something of a influence of the hard-boiled mystery. [2]

The ornate books are known as the "Paarfi" novels, after their in-universe author. I read the previous ones as part of my editorial work at the SFBC, though I don't think I was able to buy them for that operation. (I was a Brust fan from way back - as I still am.) I don't have any posts on those books to link to; they all predate this blog. But I can link to my post on the most recent Vlad Taltos novel, Vallista, which has some more details on this world for those who care.

But the short form is: this is a fake-historical novel, presented as if a popular historical work within the context of this fictional world, by a writer who comes across to us as quite pompous and stuffed-shirt-y, but who we are to believe is actually very zippy and modern and shocking to the hugely long-lived and conservative Dragearans.

By this point, most readers will have guess what Baron of Magister Valley is: it's a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo in that world. (Alexandre Dumas wrote a lot of books, but only a few of them are still famous a century and a half later.)

So: you know the rough plot, and you have a sense of the style: long, clause-clotted sentences that circle a thought as if they are a cavalry detachment trying to defeat and capture it. I could go into what the characters are named in this version, and maybe a bit about the (small) changes the existence of magic in Brust's world requires in the story...but I'd probably need to know Monte Cristo better to do that well, and I've never actually read Monte Cristo. (I do like his sandwich, though, he said puckishly.)

Baron strikes me as less connected to the central matter of the Dragaeran books than the previous series was: those books cast light on important "historical" events in the series, and I think some of those characters also appeared, substantially older, in the Vlad books. This is an unconnected story, about one man wronged and his quest for vengeance.

I'm hesitant to recommend Baron to new readers: it does stand on its own, but the style will be an obstacle for a lot of readers, and it's primary appeal is for the audience who already knows this world and wants more stories about it. But, if you do happen to be a fan of long, discursive 19th century novels, check this out.

[1] This is not the name of the world. It's the name of the main inhabitants, who are not exactly human, and of their empire. But that gets far into the weeds.

[2] Brust is fond of stylistic experimentation, though: the word "mostly" is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence.

1 comment:

Marquis de Condorcet said...

There is one character in this book who carries over into the Vlad novels.

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