I came away from The Baron of Magister Valley smiling. It’s the epitome of a fun book, one crafted with obvious skill and passion, taking the reader on a journey that by turns excites and intrigues, horrifies and thrills. It’s got a story that kept my attention, and, as the sages say, had me turning pages, and protagonists who I cared about. There’s duels, wordplay, and a wonderful amount of baroque-yet-cunningly-crafted language.
Speaking of which, I have to talk about the style. Anyone who picked up The Phoenix Guards, or one of Brust’s other Khaavren Romances books will be familiar with it. In theory, they’re all written by the same in-universe historian, Paarfi of Roundwood, whose academic feuds and tendency to pointed outrage at petty injustices suffuse the subtext of the story. And Paarfi is a long-winded fellow. In this, he follows the tradition of Dumas, whose works are, shall we say, an homage to Paarfi, rather than the other way around. Paid by the word, Dumas gave us flowery descriptions of every, er, description, and dialogue which laced beautifully shaped prose through a structure which meant you got rather a lot of it for your money. And Paarfi is the same. There’s rather a lot of characters asking if someone wants them to answer a question, hearing the reply, confirming that they have heard the reply, replying to the confirmation, replying to the reply, and then maybe actually providing some information. It can be a bit hard to get your head around. But after a while, you don’t notice - the words themselves flow together in a cadence which is both a surprisingly restful read, and also compels you to turn the next page.
I suppose I’m saying that, if you’re new to Paarfi’s style, don’t worry, you get used to it. Like klava without honey in it, you may even come to enjoy it after a little while!
The story...well, depending on who you believe about who published first, you could say it bears a certain similarity to Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. Taking the place of the Count is Eremit, the young scion of a noble family, recently come into possession of resources. This does not end well for him. Eremit is a wonderful portrait of someone unjustly confined, pacing the walls of their cell, marking time, trying to find a meaning and purpose in the slow monotony of their lives. Eremit is also a vivid actor when given the chance for vengeance, a mastermind with a ticking clock, moving his enemies like chess pieces, giving a comeuppance which was extremely cathartic to read. He’s easy to sympathise with, is Eremit, and his actions are always justified; thi is a paean to righteous vengeance. But it starts with a different person, a young man looking at the sun travelling over the sea - and the proof of the growth of his character is that, over time, that boy seems unlike Eremit to both himself and us. The pages that make up the text are those that shape Eremit, and drive him toward the heart of vengeance on a corrupt system, and the individuals which enable it - and if he is changed by that experience, then so too are we changed by having it with him.
Livosha, Eremit’s betrothed, is perhaps the other significant point of view here. While Eremit’s initial stages are those of confinement and apathy driven by injustice, Livosha is an active agent, struggling to escape from carnage, survive tragedy, and take back what is hers. Livosha is charming, thoughtful, deadly with a blade - and as driven by the need for survival and for revenge as is Eremit. Her relationship with her family has some genuinely charming banter in it, and watching her kick arse and take names, whilst slowly re-ascending the steps of a society which ignored her when she was cast down - well, it’s a pure joy. Livosha, having struggled through trials and tribulations, is someone you can cheer when they’re finally holding the edge of a sword to the throat of someone used to abusing a position of power.
And that’s what this is, in the end. A world of nobility, of power, of corruption and abuse, wrapped in phantom structures of honour, where what is right is decided by connections, magic, and the number of blades. That world can be overturned by one or two people of good intent, who are determined to make something of it, something better. Dragaera will be changed by these two, and by their friends - and by the struggles they have against a cast of delightfully unpleasant villains. This is a world of sorcery and high adventure, but its tale of the struggle to rise up out from under a system of oppression, to have agency of ones own, and not to accept what the system doles out - those are messages that resonate very strongly today.
Paarfi..er..Brust, has done it again. This is at once a searing indictment of modern society, a thrilling adventure story, and a cosy fantasy delight. And for all of those reasons, I suggest that you help Paarfi pay for his next cup of klava, and pick a copy up. It’s a lot of fun, and it’ll make you smile.