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The Baron of Magister Valley
by Steven Brust
Tor, $27.99, 447 pages
Published: July 2020

If you love Steven Brust's storytelling, a new book of his is enough to send you scampering to your local bookstore, or making a one-click purchase online. If you have not yet read any of his books, The Baron of Magister Valley is actually a great place to start, because it can be read as either a standalone adventure or as an introductory tale to the Vlad Taltos series, because it turns out the main character of this novel is one who, centuries later, will play an increasingly important role in Vlad's ongoing adventures.

For those readers unfamiliar with Brust's talents, I should explain that, like many musicians, he has a superb ear for the tonalities and rhythms of language, for the music of words; and being a playful kind of guy, he loves to play with words and with storytelling. So the adventure romances that take place before and immediately after the crisis of Adron's Disaster are at once homages to the novels of Alexandre Dumas, important historical background to the Vlad Taltos stories, and social comedies like the best of Restoration theatre crossed with Jane Austen. This is because they are written in the persona of a historian named Paarfi, who interjects commentary, remarks on the shortcomings of publishers and rivals, and endures crises of his own that usually play out in the Prefaces and Afterwards. In this book, Paarfi has his own story arc.

The narrative focus is on Eremit, a young noble, engaged to a similarly young and noble lady named Levosha. Eremit's parents send him on a mission to ask the local count for protection, because they fear that their extremely valuable property is coveted by dangerous and greedy men. Their fears are more than justified; unfortunately, the count is the wrong person to ask for protection.

Eremit finds himself taken prisoner, denied due process, and cast into a prison that is secured by magical wards as well as well-armed guards. When he realizes that he will never be allowed to go to trial, that he will never be allowed to leave, he despairs. But another prisoner - yes, the inspiration for this story is Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo - becomes his mentor, and eventually helps him escape.

Meanwhile, Levosha and her brother have barely survived the attack upon their own household. Escaping and evading the men who want them dead, they endure many years of haphazard existence. But they gradually form alliances that make it possible for them to avenge their family and rescue Eremit.

I'd like to say here that where female characters are concerned, I infinitely prefer Brust's stories to Dumas's. Levosha is a protagonist and heroine in her own right, not an anthropomorphized prize for good behavior to be won or lost. Brust is perfectly well aware that women are human beings first and foremost. He portrays them that way, without making a Big Deal of it, and that, of course, is the best way to make the point.

There are clever plot twists and turns, amazing moments of sheerest irony, splendid characterizations, and a clear sense of the necessity for systemic justice in the affairs of human beings. All in all, a wonderful book.

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis, there is a scene where Lucy is in the Magician's house searching for a spell in his book of magic, and finds one "For the refreshment of the spirit."  As I read The Baron of Magister Valley, I felt like Lucy: sorely in need of refreshment of the spirit, and so gifted. ~~ Chris Wozney

For more titles by Steven Brust click here

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