Steven Brust,
(Tor, 1993; Orb, 2004)

The latest subgenre of fantasy to place itself in my path is what is known as "dark" or "gothic" fantasy: vampires, werewolves and the like in a (usually) contemporary setting. Steven Brust, in Agyar, first published in 1993 (and recently reissued by the Orb imprint of Tom Doherty Associates), seems to have been among the first to investigate this area, opening, if not paving, the way for such series as Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake novels, Tanya Huff's Blood series featuring Victory Nelson and the vampire Henry Fitzroy, and Jim Butcher's Chicago-based hero/antihero Harry Dresden, wizard for hire. (And, of course, let us not for a moment forget Buffy.)

Brust's novel concerns the doings of Jack Agyar, whom we come gradually to understand is a vampire. Agyar has a great deal in common with Vlad Taltos, hero of Brust's best-known fantasy cycle; he narrates the story, tends toward digressions that hold their own fascination (he is an engaging narrator), is somewhat of a smart-aleck and seems to find himself in impossible predicaments on a regular basis.

Agyar, although engaging, even likeable, is not a nice man; he is a vampire, given to putting his own desires above any other consideration and is sometimes rather careless of the lives of mere mortals. And yet, like Vlad Taltos, he has a human weakness: he loves. This weakness plays itself out in a complex web composed of Jill, who keeps Agyar alive, although against her will; Susan, Jill's roommate, who reaches through Agyar's inhumanity to his core; and Laura Kellem, his "mother in darkness," to whom he is in thrall and who has been indiscreet enough that, to avoid discovery herself, she is willing to offer Agyar as a decoy.

In many ways, Agyar picks up the themes of Brust's earlier To Reign in Hell: honor, love, sacrifice and redemption as a combination that not only motivates but directs human life. (One is almost impelled to note Wagner's treatment of the same complex in Tristan und Isolde, although Brust's treatment is nowhere near so ... well, Wagnerian.)

The novel is cast as Agyar's journal, typed out on an old manual typewriter -- which he calls a "typewriting machine" -- in a room in an abandoned house, which he shares with the ghost of an ex-slave named Jim. The form allows Brust to do what he does best: reflect, digress, elaborate as a means of exploring character and events. We learn of events through Agyar's memory; we learn of characters by indirection and inference, which to me is the best way to do it; and we are privy to the thoughts of someone who may not be entirely human, but is, ultimately, a magnificent example of what we are pleased to call "humanity."

This may very well be one of Brust's best books. It's not a comforting book, by any means; it's serious enough that his trademark insouciance would be out of place, and both the development of the story and its resolution are outside the canon of comfort. It's a very "literary" novel, proving once more that literature is literature, and all genres are subject to the same standards. I've said it before and I'm saying it again ... Steven Brust is quite arguably the best stylist working in fantasy literature, and maybe in any literary area at all. I really thought I didn't like this one, at first, figuring that even one's literary heroes occasionally come up with a turkey. I was wrong.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 18 June 2005

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