The Paths of the Dead

by Steven Brust

Cover image

Series: Khaavren Romances #3
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: December 2002
Printing: August 2003
ISBN: 0-8125-3417-4
Format: Mass market
Pages: 397

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In Which the Reader Is Introduced to Various Personages of Note, Who Then Take Multiple Journeys, Pausing from Time to Time to Discuss the Fate of Empires and Have Conversations of an Introductory Nature, But Resolving Little of Note Apart from Preparing the Reader for the Next Book.

This is the third book in the Khaavren Romances, set in the same universe as the Vlad Taltos series but taking place considerably earlier (at least as compared to Vlad's lifespan). It's useful but not necessary to have read the predecessor books, The Phoenix Guards and Five Hundred Years After. They introduce many of the major characters and provide background for the Interregnum, but they're not immediately relevant to the plot. What is perhaps more useful is having read a substantial chunk of the Vlad Taltos series, not because it's directly linked, but because this book is much more interesting if you've already worked up some curiosity about the Interregnum and some of its major events.

It's now another couple hundred years after Five Hundred Years After, and Brust is gathering more of the Dragaerans who later appear in Vlad's stories (Morrolan and Teldra, for example). The Paths of the Dead is the first book of a trilogy dealing with the Interregnum, and unfortunately Paarfi (the fictional narrator, a historian writing from around Vlad's time) uses this to expand his already loquacious style. Be prepared, despite a fairly quick and interesting start, for extended bits in which little of compelling interest happens (although partially redeemed by Paarfi's style, if you enjoy it).

One problem is that Brust introduces a new set of characters, of the next generation after Khaavren, who appear to be the heroes of this story. But those characters don't cover enough ground, so he also introduces Morrolan and Teldra, brings back all the characters of the previous books, adds several new related characters, and brings in yet more long-lived characters who also appear in Vlad's time. The result is quite a lot of characters, enough that they're hard to keep track of (particularly the younger generation) and even harder at times to care about.

Lest I sound too negative, I still enjoyed this book. The bits of Dragaeran history that it fills in continue to fascinate me (and I'm looking forward to finishing the series so that I can trawl fan encyclopedias for all the bits that I missed). And there are various encounters, some good conversations with Sethra and Verra, and a nice, solid action sequence at the end of the book. But despite dealing with more dramatic events than The Phoenix Guards, The Paths of the Dead was a bit of a let-down.

The characters of Khaavren's generation, in the course of the previous two books, got rather solid characterizations. Even with the distancing effect of Paarfi's narrative style, Brust got in a lot of their internal monologues and emotional impressions, and I felt like I knew them well. Switching casts was a bit frustrating, and the new characters don't interest me as much. Piro feels like more of an empty hole in the story than Khaavren does, Kytraan is remarkably forgettable, and neither get the same depth of interior monologue and detailed description that the previous four compatriots received. I found myself looking forward to the scenes with the older characters (particularly Tazendra), even if they're side story, because the characters are more interesting.

The set I'll call the Vlad characters (Morrolan, Teldra, the Sethras, and a few others introduced here) are much better, in large part because I'm already familiar with them from reading multiple Vlad stories. I already know them well and care about them, so their scenes pack additional emotional weight. This is lucky, since they show up more here than in Five Hundred Years After, but they suffer from the other major problem of this book: they rarely get to do anything concrete.

This is very much a setup story, giving us a background at great length and then shuffling the characters about to get them ready for the next section. The only bit of solid and conclusive action happens at the end of the book, and while it's both interesting and worthwhile, it features the new character who's more of a cipher than any of the others. I had a great deal of difficulty caring about her, in part because she undergoes a significant off-camera character development and then gets a new personality by fiat (not that she had much screen time before then). That sadly undermines the end of the book.

The best parts of The Paths of the Dead are the mythology and, of course, Paarfi's writing style, which if you're reading the whole series you probably either love or hate by this point. Either way, there's not much more to say about it; it continues in the same style as the previous books. I will note, though, that the prelude and appendix, which further play into the faux-historical narration of the book, are written by Emma Bull and Teresa Nielsen Hayden respectively and are highly entertaining.

Recommended if you liked the previous two Khaavren books, but alas not as strongly.

Followed by The Lord of Castle Black.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-10-30

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21