The Phoenix Guards by Steven Brust. ★★★1/2
The Phoenix Guards is set a thousand years before the events of Jhereg and is a pastiche of Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. Four noble friends join the Phoenix Guards and become caught up in ongoing plots and conspiracies of the court.
The Phoenix Guards is written with a framing device where it is the account of a historian living sometime after the setting of the story. The style also adheres to Dumas, and it seemed similar to what I remember from reading The Count of Monte Cristo. However, I do not think the style will work for everyone. The sentences are long and windy, and the writing borders on ponderous at times. I found the use of the style and framing device interesting, but I also thought it hampered the pacing of the novel by slowing everything down. At times I felt like I was skimming to get through the prose. I should probably reread The Count of Monte Cristo and see if I have the same reaction to Dumas’s writing.
The protagonist of The Phoenix Guards is Khaavren of the House of Tiassa, a young man from a defunct noble house who wants to make a living by joining the Phoenix Guard, the imperial guards who serve in the capital of the empire. Shortly into his journey to the capital, he befriends two other adventurers who also decide to join the guard: Tazendra, an impetuous and warlike noblewoman, and Aerich, a quiet and thoughtful nobleman. Later on, they are joined by the mysterious Pel. None of the characters were particularly memorable, but they were all distinct from each other and had defining personality traits. However, they don’t have much depth beyond those defining traits.
The plot takes a long time to show up. Eventually, it becomes clear that there is a series of conspiracies in court revolving around a famed artist who outside the boundaries of a duel kills a duke who criticized her masterpiece. Various fractions in court have different plans for her, and Khaavren becomes involved at the behest of a lovely lady.
I found it a bit jarring how casually people died and killed each other, but if I remember correctly from the Vlad Taltos novels, resurrection is a common practice in the Dragaeran Empire. The Empire also has a very distinct social structure comprising of many different houses. Thankfully, I was already familiar with it from Jhereg, but I don’t doubt that it would be confusing for someone new to the world.
In the end, I found The Phoenix Guards entertaining enough. I think a lot of people will either love it or hate it, depending on how they react to the writing style. If you are a big fan of Alexandre Dumas, you’ll probably get a big kick out of it. You’d probably also enjoy it if you love the Vlad Taltos novels and want to know more about the backstory of the world.