"Joy and pleasure are as real as pain and sorrow and one must learn what they have to teach. . . ." -- Sean Russell, from Gatherer of Clouds

"If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right." -- Helyn D. Goldenberg

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“If I hear ‘not allowed’ much oftener,” said Sam, “I’m going to get angry.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, from Lord of the Rings

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Review: Steven Brust: To Reign in Hell

Another Epinions orphan. There is another version at Green Man Review.

Fantasy literature as a genre seldom strays into the consideration of such literary criteria as "style." This is not to say that fantasy writers are generic – one can easily differentiate someone like C. J. Cherryh, with her lush, dense, highly colored prose and gift for dialogue from, for example, Charles de Lint, whose writing is equally lush, often equally dense, and just as captivating, but very different. But there are vanishingly few writers of fantasy who play with style the way Steven Brust does, and in Brust's hands, this means not only the quality and focus of his abilities as a wordsmith, but the assumption of style as a formal consideration that involves structure and theme. In Brokedown Palace, for example, he took the basic form and feel of a folktale and built a captivating novel of fantasy. The Taltos Cycle, a series of stories about a combination Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin (Vlad Taltos does a lot of the legwork and most of the thinking – he loves good food, but does not grow orchids) has a decidedly noir cast that brings it firmly into the camp of the classic American detective novel. His newest series, the Viscount of Adrilankha, began as an affectionate spoof of Alexandre Dumas in The Phoenix Guard and Five Hundred Years After. Throughout, Brust has displayed an ease and confidence that are truly awe-inspiring.

To Reign In Hell definitely fits the parameters. Brust's own idiosyncratic retelling of the War in Heaven and the casting down of Satan, it is in many ways a tribute to Roger Zelazny, with Dumas one of Brust's literary heroes. Zelazny wrote a glowing introduction to this book, and within a couple of paragraphs it is easy to see why he identified with it so strongly. Brust has used an episodic structure that is almost cinematic, borrowing devices that Zelazny made his own: the particular combinations of exposition and inference, direct narrative and ellipsis, become the literary equivalent of cuts and slow fades, moving the story along as though we were seeing it on the big screen. (If one has read such classic Zelazny as Creatures of Light and Darkness or his penultimate novel, Donnerjack, one can easily see the likeness.)

Brust also has a gift for characterization. His people are deftly and subtly drawn. Yaweh, in particular, moves from primus inter pares to omnipotent creator in a series of small, inevitable steps; far from being the all-knowing and all-powerful deity of Judaeo-Christian tradition, he is all too human, sometimes doubting his own rightness but ultimately acquiescing to what, he is told and comes to believe, is "necessary." This same subtlety and poignancy comes into play with most of the characters, and, while there is indeed a villain in the book, he is not the one the reader would expect – and even then, he can’t really be characterized as “evil,” merely ambitious and given to temporizing. In fact, there are really only a couple of characters who are not in some way sympathetic – the majority are all too human.

Perhaps not strangely in Brust's hands, this is not a story about "good" and "evil" – at least, not in our usual understanding of black/white, either/or, right/wrong – but is really a study of means and ends and the way that letting decisions make themselves is really a way of making decisions without the responsibility for their consequences. And, in this shades-of-gray viewpoint, integrity is not a marketable commodity. And so Satan, while trying to decide if he can wholeheartedly support Yaweh’s plan to create a completely safe realm for the inhabitants of Heaven (which is subject to periodic Waves from the surrounding flux, from which angels are created and by which they are destroyed while they battle to push the flux back outside their boundaries) in spite of its costs, is able to say to Yaweh: “I have never lied about who I was, what I was doing, or why I was doing it. You have done all of these.” Brust very neatly turns the traditional story and the traditional take on who are the heroes and villains on their heads. Both Yaweh and Satan are isolated, subject to counsel that is not necessarily bad in itself, but one-sided, leaving them vulnerable to the expectations generated by rumor on the one hand and the need for leadership on the other; the machinations of someone whose only guide is his own ambition provide the telling blow.

This is a book that can be read many ways, and there are many themes that reside in what is really a very concise, almost terse presentation of a age-old story: the ease with which we are corrupted by power, the easy perversion of sanctity by authority, the disease of fanaticism and its stomach for atrocities in the service of a "higher law,” the vulnerability of good will and tolerance. To Reign In Hell has that protean quality that is characteristic of all significant works of art – and I have no reservations about calling it just that.

Another point of comparison with Zelazny is that, while dealing with serious matters, both are known for the expert and almost surgically precise application of irony and a light touch. One senses the distance that each maintains from the heavy freight they are conveying, a stance that lets them set the issues out very clearly without ever letting them become ponderous.

The only complaint I have about To Reign In Hell seems to be built in: it's a known story, with a known outcome (although in Brust's hands, the means are something of a surprise), and even in this rendering, this known outcome is the logical outgrowth of character and events. The result from the reader's standpoint is that the climax is more than a little anticlimactic. Even with all the givens, I really had hoped for something a little grander, even while realizing that would have subverted and cheapened the book.

I don't mean, by all these comparisons with other writers, to imply that Brust is in any way lacking. Indeed, as I have read more of his work, I have come to realize that he is undoubtedly one of the finest writers in fantasy today. Even a relatively early novel such as this one (it was originally published in 1984) has a maturity and depth that many writers never achieve. I think it's axiomatic that an author can only be successful at parody if he is operating from a strong base of his own, and Brust seems to prove my point.

(Tom Doherty Associates; originally published by SteelDragon Press, 1984)

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