The Paths of the Dead
by Steven Brust
Tor, 2002, $25.95, 399 pp
The Paths of the Dead is a Dragaeran novel, but it’s not a Vlad Taltos story – instead it’s a follow-on to the wonderful Phoenix Guards and 500 Years After that came out a few years ago – the Khaavren Romances. This sub-series takes place during the Interregnum where the Dragaeran Empire has fallen and the land is in chaos. It’s deliberately modeled on Dumas’ Three Musketeers novels (one of the sequels of which was named Twenty Years After!).
The book is written in a pseudo-archaic style, and attributed to Pararfi of Roundwood, a Dragaeran scholar, but, unlike most of the Generic Fantasy writers who think that a few “thee”s and “thou”s and “wast”s and the odd word-order inversion will make for old-sounding speech, Brust knows what he’s doing and does a fine job of playing with speech patterns. (One of them, where it takes three or four back-and-forth exchanges to get a simple answer is maddening, which, I suppose, is why Brust uses it. I’ll admit that it grew wearisome after a while.)
The story follows (mostly) a younger generation (Khaavern’s son is one of the main characters) but old standbys like Sethra Lavode is also in it. We also meet a young Morollan, though his part is pretty obviously mainly in the later books in this series.
The story is straight-forward enough: The Phoenix Heir to the Throne must travel to the Paths of the Dead to recover the Orb and restore the Empire. (Note all the capital letters – this is a fantasy, after all. But Brust is a cut above, so it’s done with more originality and humor than all this capitals would suggest.) Sethra Lavode has been protecting Zerika, the Phoenix Heir, and now gathers her some companions (note: no capital letter here) and sets them off on their task.
Re-establishing the Empire won’t be easy: in the 250 years since it fell, many petty warlords have been gathering power and trying to create a new Empire ruled by them. One, in particular, has conquered perhaps a third of the former Empire’s area and looks likely to be Zerika’s major antagonist in the next book.
The real fun is watching all of the curious people with which Brust populates the book. Many of them are young Dragereans who are eager to do something, but some are older and many are still suffering from the disaster of the fall of the Empire.
This is intelligent, fun, fantasy.
There are also a pair of wonder pieces by Emma Bull (a long introduction as by the Dragaeran publisher of the book) and Teresa Nielsen Hayden (An afterword on how to write like Paarfi of Roundwood) which are almost worth the price of the book by themselves.