by Steven Brust

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: March 1993
Printing: March 1994
ISBN: 0-8125-1521-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 254

Buy at Powell's Books

Before getting into the review, I should provide a caution. I was warned away from reading back covers, dusk jackets, or any on-line discussion of Agyar before reading it on the grounds that almost everything spoils major revelations of the book. Having now read the book, I think I agree with the caution, but the reason is somewhat misplaced. It's not so much that the available information about this book spoils the story as that it hurts the emotional effect of the book. I'm going to try to not do that, but if you're particularly sensitive to spoilers of emotional tone and authorial intent, you may want to skip even this review before reading it for the first time. Definitely do not read the Amazon blurb.

Agyar is the first non-Vlad-Taltos book by Brust I've read that feels like a Vlad book, despite a completely different setting. For those, like me, who are mildly obsessed with the Vlad series, that's good news.

John Agyar is a newcomer to an Ohio college town who finds a typewriter in the attic and succumbs to the temptation to type on it. The result is this book, which varies between a journal, a detailed narration, a collection of musings (and even occasional poetry, but don't let that turn you off), and an erratic diary. Agyar writes only for himself or the ghost with whom he shares a house, placing the reader in the position of a hidden eavesdropper on his private thoughts. He will occasionally break off in the middle of sentences, say he's not going to talk about things, and abruptly restart narratives later.

Brust is remarkably good at this sort of unusually tight first-person narration, as any long-time reader of the Vlad series could tell you. Here, he puts the reader in Agyar's head as an extremely unreliable narrator, hiding details, skipping backstory, and avoiding some critical labels that the reader has to supply for themselves. It's very effective without being confusing or frustrating, which in retrospect is a remarkable feat. While reading, it's so smooth that one rarely stops to think about the difficulty of what Brust is doing.

In addition to being a character profile and a story, with a fairly good plot, a few twists and turns, and an ending that caught me entirely by surprise, Agyar is also an examination of the process of writing. The conceit of the book is that one is reading Agyar's unedited, unreviewed, stream-of-consciousness typing. He starts out typing largely for the feel of it, caring about the content only because it gives him an excuse to type, something that sparked almost-forgotten memories of when I first learned how to type and fell in love with the tactile sensation. As the book goes on, Agyar writes his entries for more and more complicated reasons, occasionally remarking on them, turning them over on the page, or laughing at them. Throughout, this is completely believable. Brust somehow contrives to drop completely out of this book, turn his authorial voice entirely over to Agyar, and make the reader forget that someone else is writing the novel. It's one of those feats of writing that's remarkably impressive in its lack of ostentatiousness.

Like Vlad, Agyar ends up with a sidekick of sorts, and at times there's a wise-cracking dynamic between them that reminded me of Loiosh. But Agyar also has an attitude of emotional disinterest and world-weariness that runs much deeper than Vlad's keen sense of survival. They're both, in their own ways, hypercompetent individuals operating mostly in a world of less capable people, but Agyar takes this for granted in some interesting ways and takes much less pleasure in it. (And also spends less time telling the reader how he goes about it.) That's not the reason why he's writing, and the reader ends up discovering much of what he does by extrapolation and guesswork.

As mentioned, the ending caught me very much by surprise. I'm still not entirely sure what I think of it. However, as Jo Walton mentions obliquely in her review (spoilers!), there are two entirely different experiences one can get from the ending: one if you read the book in the normal fashion, and one if you, immediately upon finishing it, begin reading it again from the beginning. If you pick this one up, try it. It's a remarkable effect, all the more so because it's beautifully understated and not heavily advertised.

Brust has a mastery and flexibility of authorial voice that I find astonishing. Agyar is no exception; it's the most like the Vlad Taltos books, but still unlike anything else of his that I've read. It's somehow elliptical and sly without being frustrating, and while sparsely populated it has some of the most fully-fleshed and substantial characters I can remember in a short novel (even the one without flesh). I think the emotional tone will be a bit hit and miss, and I didn't fall in love with it the way that I did with Dragaera, but it's a remarkable book. Recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-03-27

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