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The Paths of the Dead
by Steve Brust
Tor Books, 2002, $15.99, 399pp
Relase Date: May 22, 2012
First, some background. When Steven Brust started writing a fantasy series about a human assassin named Vlad Taltos who lived amongst tall, pointy-eared, long-lived bipeds who called themselves humans and referred to the short-lived bipeds as Easterners, he originally had a story arc in mind that concluded with Vlad happy, wealthy, landed, and retired after 5 books. Hey, if five books worked for Corwin and Merlin each in The Chronicles of Amber, who was Vlad to demand more? Well, whether it was Vlad’s ego, or Brust’s muse, or millions of clamouring readers, or the Cycle itself, some influence worked on Brust to continue the series past the resolution at the end of Phoenix . Vlad went on to some dark places, but he also had some wonderful adventures, and Brust got to play around with a variety of literary styles and devices. By now, it was clear that millions of clamouring readers and the Cycle demanded a full set of eighteen stories: one for each of the seventeen aspects of the Cycle, and Taltos for the Easterners.

But Brust’s muse had ideas of her own, it seemed; furthermore, certain characters insisted on having their histories told; and millions of clamouring readers kept asking questions like, “What was Adron’s Disaster? What was the Empire like before?” “Who exactly IS the Necromancer, and where did she come from?” “How did Morrolan learn Eastern sorcery?” “How did Morrolan and Lady Teldra become friends?” “Where did the Phoenix empress Zerika come from?” “Does she really have an Eastern lover, and how did they meet?” and so on. And so came to be written The Phoenix Guards, Five Hundred Years After, and The Viscount of Adrilankha, of which this is the first of three volumes. Now, even if you think you are only and strictly a Vlad Taltos fan, with little interest in epic histories and swashbuckler romance, you do yourself a disservice to ignore these splendid books, for not only do all the newer Cycle stories include characters from these histories, there is the little matter of all those questions answered. Besides, who doesn’t need a laugh now and then? Brust’s humor is usually in the ‘dry to laconic’ range, but he also plays with slapstick, whimsy, wit, repartee, conceits, pleasantries, asides, addresses, tom-foolery, and hurly-burly. All these epics are presented as the work of a Dragaeran historian named Paarfi, and some of the funniest passages, if you like your humor snide and snarky, concern the Paarfi frame story.

The Paths of the Dead is set a generation after the events of Five Hundred Years After; the young heroes of that book have settled down, and some of their children are now starting out on their own adventures. Piro is the son of Khaavren (I shan’t give away any spoilers by telling who his mother is, in case you haven’t yet read the earlier books), and his companions are Lewchin, an Issola; Shant, the son of a Dzur Lord; and Zivra, who is a bit of an enigma, but dresses as a Dragonlord. The Interregnum, the time of the apparent break in the Cycle after a decadent Phoenix ’ reign, is in its 156th year, and the very gods are in disagreement as to how matters should proceed, as is made apparent in Chapter 18. But our young heroes are in no doubt, and, strangely enough, or not so strangely, neither are the villains: the Empire needs to be restored. But how shall that be accomplished? On the one hand, nobles of several houses form an alliance and plan to impose a transition to a Dragon reign, from which much wealth and power will accrue to themselves. Among these, by the way, is one of Khaavren’s old friends, Pel, who like Aramis of The Three Musketeers, looks always to his own advancement, with the serpent-like subtlety of the Yendi he is. Piro and his friends have another idea: rescue the Orb, even if doing so means walking the Paths of the Dead and confronting the gods.

But first, far to the East, a young man goes on a quest to discover his name, and meets up with a Coachman…. ~~ Chris R. Paige

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