1991’s The Phoenix Guards seems to have intended as a one-off, as far as I can tell from the two “about the author” pieces. Nostalgic for works in the style of Sabatini and Dumas, Brust set out to create a new work reminiscent of the French Romantics, one set in the distant past of his on-going Vlad Taltos series.
The Vlad stories are told in a style often called “first person smart-ass”, a style whose lineage might go back to Archie Goodwin in the Nero Wolf series. Since that sort of rapid-fire, detached sardonicism would have been inappropriate for a Dumas-inspired work, Brust instead gives us Paarfi of Roundwood, a self-styled historian writing dramatized versions of events that happened long before his time. Paarfi never uses one word where three would do and also Paarfi isn’t exactly a reliable narrator.
Khaavren, Aerich, and Tazendra are all young, of aristocratic background and, for various reasons, poor. Khaavren gets the bright idea to join the elite Phoenix Guards and the other two elect to join him. With the guidance of a fourth young aristocrat named Pel, they are all accepted into the Guard, a development that commanding officer G’aereth no doubt soon regrets.
All four of the aristocrats are impressively good at lethal violence, whichis fortunate because they are also terrible at avoiding situations where other people want them dead. All four recruits are assigned older
Guards as mentors and all four manage to provoke their mentors into duels.. Khaavren, Aerich, Tazendra and Pel survive; their unfortunate partners do not. Too few people learn the obvious lesson (the quartet are people it is wiser to avoid crossing) although some at least get the idea of using cat’s paws to attack the lethal four.
When the painter Kathana murders a critic and flees from arrest, the four get the bright idea that they will track her down and detain her themselves. Being inexperienced at intrigue, they have no idea that both Court Wizard Seodra and Warlord Lytra want to manipulate the circumstances of Kathana’s inevitable arrest for their own benefit. The young guardsman do not realize that by inserting themselves into the situation they have made themselves targets for some very well-connected, powerful people.
The situations is complicated when Uttrick, son of the man Kathana killed, arrives to kill Kathana and by the appearance of Seodra’s well-born lackeys Garland and Shaltre. It is further complicated when, after agreeing that they must duel to the death, Uttrick and Kathana discover that they quite like each other. Happily, the group is provided a distraction from the certainty that conflicting agendas will force friend to kill friend. Less happily, that distraction comes when the region where Kathana has been hiding is invaded by the Easterners.
The Easterners are numerous enough that any attempt by a small handful to resist the invasion will certainly end in the violent death of everyone in the group. This obvious fact is not heeded. While the aristocrats have many useful attributes, nowhere among those attributes will one find a sense of self-preservation.
I remembered this as a much longer book than it actually is. I think I was misled by the paper Tor used, which seems to be of a heavier stock than normal. The story would be even shorter if Paarfi did not narrate like this:
It would seem, therefore, that if we allow our readers, by virtue of being in the company of the historian, to eavesdrop on this interchange, we will have, in one scene, discharged two obligations; a sacrifice, if we may say so, to the god Brevity, whom all historians, indeed, all who work with the written word, ought to worship. We cannot say too little on this subject.
and if the conscientious politeness of this period did not triple the length of conversations:
Well, if you wish, I shall explain all.”
“Shards! I have been asking for nothing else for an hour!”
“Well, two words will explain all.”
“I await you.”
“But first, if you please, remove the point of your sword from my throat, where it hampers my elocution. I am fully aware that you have won our contest, and my life now belongs to you; and I assure you that if, after I have answered your question, you still wish to kill me, well, I will not resist.”
Nobody ever gets right to the point in this, unless it is to the point of someone’s sword. They may all be killers but everyone who matters is polite to a fault1. The conversational style is oddly addictive and not an impediment between reader and text at all.
I should admit to something about the parallels I could draw between The Phoenix Guards and the d’Artagnan romances of Dumas and that something is: “I’ve never read an actual, unabridged, translated version of the d’Artagnan romances, should not count films or children’s LPs as a substitute, and so cannot comment in an informed way about the similarities between The Phoenix Guards and the d’Artagnan romances.” There are some huge holes in my reading and that would be one of the more salient examples.
Interestingly, although the Vlad Taltos series was then published by Ace, The Phoenix Guards was published by Tor Books. The series did move to Tor but not, I believe, until 1998’sDragon. I don’t know what the story behind Tor’s publication of the Phoenix Guard would be.
I see Tor followed Brust’s name with P.J.F. on the title-page and I don’t feel like … ah, crap. This is a poppy seed moment. Just a minute. [suitable video here] Those letters appear after Brust’s name in some but not all of the Ace editions of the Vlad Taltos books and they are a reference to the Pre-Joycean Fellowship2:
The Pre-Joycean Fellowship, abbreviated PJF, was a collective identification that was semi-seriously adopted by several writers known for fantasy and science fiction, to indicate that they value 19th-century values of storytelling.”
Ah, spec fic, always marching majestically back first towards the future.
Members of the PJF include Steven Brust, Emma Bull, Pamela Dean, Kara Dalkey, Neil Gaiman (! really?), Adam Stemple, Will Shetterly, and Jane Yolen. Although not all members of the PJF are equally talented, if you enjoy one member, you could consider others. Or not. This is also a handy list to keep to hand during various internet feuds, just to remind yourself who is friends with whom.
There weren’t many books like The Phoenix Guards written way back in 1991. Almost a quarter century later the neo-Dumas genre still languishes, aside from the subsequent four volumes in the Khaavren romances: Five Hundred Years After (1994) and The Viscount of Adrilankha, which was published in three volumes: The Paths of the Dead (2002), The Lord of Castle Black (2003) and Sethra Lavode (2004). The Phoenix Guards was a charming, addictive read lo those many years ago and having just reread it I can assure you that the intervening decades have cost it none of its charm.
- This may be why Easterner Vlad does so well in his much later period; in the time a typical Dragaeran would take to reach the end of any given convoluted sentence, Vlad will have stabbed them six or seven times.
- PJF is a reference to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of painters, poets and critics about whom I will say nothing beyond “To know Dante Gabriel Rossetti is to want to beat him severely, stitch him into a heavily weighted sack, and drop him into the Thames.”