Steven Brust,
To Reign in Hell
(SteelDragon, 1984;
Tor, 2000)

Steven Brust is quite arguably the most sophisticated stylist working in the realm of fantasy literature today. From Brokedown Palace, which takes the form of an extended not-quite-traditional folk tale, through the the Vlad Taltos novels, which combine elements of classic noir detective fiction around a character who is at the same time Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe, to the affectionate parody of Alexandre Dumas in The Phoenix Guard and the "Viscount of Adrilankha" cycle, Brust displays an ease and confidence that are simply awe inspiring.

Roger Zelazny wrote a glowing introduction to To Reign in Hell, Brust's early and idiosyncratic retelling of the War in Heaven and the casting out of Satan and his minions. Two paragraphs into the opening of the novel itself, one understands at least part of Zelazny's appreciation; the novel is strongly reminiscent of Zelazny at his finest while retaining most of Brust's strengths. Indeed, Brust uses a device that Zelazny made his own, an episodic structure, to build this book. It only makes sense: there are many characters to keep track of, and longer narrative sections would distort the time flow of the story. What gives this structure the particular flavor of Zelazny is its cinematic quality, that particular combination of flow and ellipsis, exposition and inference, complete with the literary equivalent of cuts and slow fades. (One need only think of Creatures of Light & Darkness or Donnerjack to see the strong parallels, although Brust's effort is more coherent than the former and more concise than the latter.)

Characters are deftly drawn; the progression of Yaweh, in particular, from primus inter pares to omnipotent creator, is handled with subtlety and poignancy. 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.

The core of this novel is not really the conflict between "good" and "evil" -- at least, not in the black/white, either/or sense that we are used to -- but a study of means and ends and the way that not making a decision makes decisions -- perhaps these are the things that substitute for good and evil in a shades-of-grey contemporary world. Integrity is a not-very-profitable recourse. Thus, Satan, caught by events while wrestling with his own doubts about 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), 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." And Brust very neatly turns the traditional story on its head, while pointing up the fact that Satan and Yaweh, by never actually speaking directly with each other, make themselves subject on the one hand to the expectations generated by rumor among those looking for leadership and on the other, the machinations of someone whose only guide is his own ambition.

There are many themes that reveal themselves as aspects of Brust's main concern -- the ability of power to corrupt, the easy perversion of sanctity to authority, fanaticism and its stomach for atrocities as the natural corollary of following a "higher law," the ease of subverting good will and tolerance. This is also a book that can be read many ways, from the topical to the universal -- one can make a strong case for interpreting it as an indictment of American liberalism as easily as one of American conservatism, or of a culture based on marketing, or of the tendency among the polity at large to let others do their thinking. It has that protean quality that is characteristic of all significant works of art.

Although the freight is heavy, Brust's stance is light, another characteristic that invites comparison with Zelazny. Neither is a writer of little substance, and they share a deft touch, an almost surgically precise use of irony, and a distance that sets the issues out very clearly without ever letting them become ponderous.

My only complaint is that -- in part because the story is known and in part because it truly is the logical result of events and character -- the climax is anticlimactic. That it is completely consistent with the way things have gone -- it is a crisis generated in large part by the inaction and fecklessness of those who should be leading -- doesn't keep one from wishing it were somehow grander.

If it weren't for the fact that Brust displays such authority as a writer, one could look at his works as a series of parodies (in the best sense), although given the evidence, "homages" would be a better characterization. I would be so bold as to call this, then, a homage to Zelazny. It does display Brust's individuality -- he is a strong writer and To Reign in Hell is a captivating example of his work.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 3 July 2004

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