THE BARON OF MAGISTER VALLEY
By Steven Brust
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Steven Brust introduced the world to Vlad Taltos and the Jhereg in his 1983 novel Jhereg. Originally seemingly content to chronicle Vlad's life and adventures, he began exploring the history of that world in 1991 with The Phoenix Guards, a pastiche of Alexander Dumas's 1944 novel The Three Musketeers. Just as Dumas followed up his book with additional books (usually published in four additional volumes), so, too, did Brust, completing the five volumes of his "Khaavren Romances" in 2004 with the publication of Sethra Lavode, seemingly finished with Dumas and refocused on continuing the books dedicated to Vlad. He now returns to the world of Dumas pastiche with The Baron of Magister Valley.
The novel opens about six hundred years before the Interregnum with a look at Eremit and Livosha, a young couple who have decided to get engaged. Unfortunately, life isn't always easy and when Eremit's family discovers a plot to take their land from them, Eremit is sent to see Count Dorin to request help against the plotters. In relatively short order, Eremit finds himself in a private jail, his family's fortunes are upended, and Livosha's family also finds itself at the bottom of the wheel of fate, with only Livosha and her younger brother, Kefaan, the only survivors of their family. Thus does Brust's tribute to Dumas's The County of Monte Cristo begin.
The voice, and even the character, that Brust used for the "Khaavren Romances," that of Paarfi of Roundwood, an egotistical and overly wordy academic whose writing style is quite florid and, it must be said, occasionally gets in the way of the novel. Paarfi's dialogue has a tendency towards the repetitive. He offers long asides as an explanation for why he doesn't describe action that he explains would slow down the pace of the novel. And the pace of The Baron of Magister Valley is intentionally slow. The "Khaavren Romances" included introductions to the stories by other mock academics, and The Baron of Magister Valley follows in this tradition, although one of the introductions is written by a critic of Paarfi's who points out his faults as an author, which has the effect of magnifying them for the reader throughout the course of the novel. The first half of the novel sets up the situation that caused Eremit to desire vengeance while also offering him the education to attain it, with Brust's "Magister" taking the place of Dumas's Abbe Faria. By the time Eremit is afforded the chance to seek his vengeance, both the character and the reader are ready for it.
Although based on The Count of Monte Cristo, The Baron of Magister Valley does not follow that novel with a too closely. Brust allows Eremit a variety of allies, both from his life before prison and his life after his escape. These allies not only help him gain his vengeance, but they help him collect the information he needs to avenge himself. They also give him additional targets for his revenge. Despite being able to call on actual magic, Eremit is a less daunting, more understandable character than his literary predecessor, although in the end his actions feel less drawn out and complex than the activities of Edmond Dantes.
However the story of Eremit, Livosha, Kefaan, and their compatriots is only part of the story Brust is telling. The Baron of Magister Valley also provides additional insight into the history of Brust's world. Although it opens several centuries before the Interregnum, it concludes after that period of history has started, allowing Brust to show its impact on a variety of characters, both noble and commoner, as not only the orb fails, but the exmpire collapses. Communication is disrupted and piracy increases. Although Eremit and Livosha are trained in the law, it becomes clear that the law stems from the social contract the only exists because of the strength of the empire, however, the lingering acceptance of the law comes to their aid numerous times.
As Brust as now paid tribute to all of Dumas's best known works, it may be that the reader has seen the last of Paarfi and his histories, but Brust has still promised at least four more novels exploring the life and times of Vlad Taltos. Brust has already tied Vlad's tales to the earlier tales of Khaavren, so it is likely, perhaps even probably, the the characters and events described in the pages of The Baron of Magister Valley will appear in Vlad's future adventures.
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