Steven Brust

Reading Leaves that Don’t Change

Twenty seconds after I started the car yesterday, Charles Mingus’s “Better Git It in Your Soul” came on the radio. That is about as good an omen as one can wish for.

I have spent much of today trying to hold on, even a little, to the feeling I had as I walked out of BookPeople in downtown Austin last night. Big, independent bookstores are cool in their own right, but I’d made the drive downtown to go a reading by Steven Brust and Skyler White, whose new book The Incrementalists I mentioned in my author love letter to Mr. Brust. Mr. Brust wore the expected hat and the expected mustache. The reading itself entertained. I’m looking forward to my turn to read the book—what I’ve heard thus far reminds me of Zelazny. (My wife gets first crack at it, since it is something of a mutual birthday present and hers comes before mine.)

Mr. Brust was kind and clever. Ms. White was jovial and sweet. They handled the signing line with aplomb. In a cool twist, they had the people they were signing for sign their own copies of The Incrementalists. I mentioned to Mr. Brust that I had written an author love letter to him just after he’d finished writing “Happy Birthday” in my copy. (I knew he had seen the original post, since he retweeted the link.) He smiled and said, “That was very sweet. I wish you’d told me that before I signed it. I would have written something nicer.” Happy birthday and a dash of warm fuzzies were fine.

My way-back-ground is in English and writing, but most of the last decade for me has revolved around music. There is a feeling you get after a good show. Partly, it’s available to everybody—that feeling of having been moved, of having for a moment set aside the arbitrary limits of time and space. For musicians, there’s sometimes another level: the feeling that you can do something like that, that you want to do something like that. You can make something that will open others like you were just opened. These moments of clarity are why so many of us do art in the first place. That’s what I was feeling when I left BookPeople last night: I can do that. I want to do that.

Last night’s was amplified by my favorite kind of cool weather. It was clear and dark and the air was dry and held just a hint of edge. Perfect weather for walking around in short sleeves and appreciating the moment you step inside. That’s what fall should be like. The job hunt’s a slog, and we’re supposed to go back over 30 deg. C later this week, but for an evening, it was fall and I was happy.

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Author Love Letter: Steven Brust

(The first in a series.)

Dear Mr. Brust, 

Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I first got interested in you when I saw you in a magazine. Well, not you. Vlad. You know, Vlad. Of course you do. (That moustache!) Vlad and his buddy Loiosh in the pages of Dragon Magazine, all statted out for an edition of Dungeons and Dragons that went out of print a couple presidents ago. I picked out Taltos a little later at the only bookstore in my small town. In hindsight, I’m impressed they had it. 

Vlad blew my mind a little bit. I was a teenager, I know, but I’d been voraciously reading anything with a sword or a dragon on the cover. Lots of very mediocre books that were busy trying to figure out where Tolkien and D&D could meet. And here came Vlad. He was the hero, but he was an assassin. A criminal. He killed people for money! I couldn’t decide if it was dangerous or evil or just cool. It was funny without being a comedy, dramatic without being heavy, full of action that didn’t seem like it was playing out in combat rounds or being scripted for a movie. Vlad was like Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes and maybe a little bit of Batman. I couldn’t even make those comparisons back then, and now I’ve read more and have better ones. But damn was Vlad cool back then. And Morrolan and Aliera and Sethra and the rest. They still are.

A year or so later I tried running my first play-by-e-mail game. It was a very loose homebrew set of rules, and I set it in Adrilankha. It was called Scaled Shadows. There was an Athyra with a gambling problem. An Easterner who I think was a barber. And there was a low-level Jhereg thief. I didn’t get very far with my players, but it was such a cool sandbox to go play in. I wonder what I’d do with it now, having learned so much more about both GMing and slick bits of Dragaera’s development like the Serioli’s “not yet.”

I read chapter six of The Phoenix Guards three times before I went on with the rest of the book. The captain’s incredulity and the friends’ shrugs…it was just too perfect. (Many years later, in a cave where the walls between worlds were weak, I cried with them.) Paarfi  is as finely crafted an alter ego as I’ve ever seen an author ‘fess up to. 

The first non-Dragaera book of yours I read was The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars. It hit me, as we’d say now, “in the feels.” I’ve re-read it often, and though it doesn’t pack the punch for me it once did, I still appreciate it. Right down to the narrator’s Zeppelin cassettes. It wasn’t too long after that, I think, that I read To Reign in Hell. I liked that one, too. And the fairy-tale patina on Brokedown Palace. And I still think The Gypsy is one of the most perfect exercises of storytelling I’ve ever read—it’s certainly my favorite instance of the “old magic in the modern world” trope. Fiddling in the last firefight in Cowboy Feng’s. The typewriter and the attic in Agyar

I know we haven’t always been tight—there was the time where I took an excerpt from one of the Vlad books in to my college creative writing class as an example of stuff I liked, and then discovered that the particular passage was a little clunky. There’s no way I could stay away, though. You’re too clever with your plots and your dialogue, too good at shifting voices and keeping things lively. Also, I’ve spent a lot of time with music and grew up in the restaurant business. Plus, I just moved from Minneapolis to Austin and I like knowing you’ve lived in both places and that you’re a real human with real experiences of some extremely real weather.

Yours,

J.D.J.

I’d planned to start with somebody else, but Steven Brust has a new book coming out soon, The Incrementalists (co-authored with Skyler White). I’ve been hanging out at his blog in the last few weeks—far ranging and mostly civil discussion on everything from postmodernism to socialism to which character Felicia Day would play in a Taltos movie. I’ve also been doing extensive revisions to some stories I wrote a few years back. The protagonist in those stories, and their tone, are heavily indebted to Brust’s Taltos books. That was plenty of reason to send him my inaugural author love letter.

Brust is one of the few authors that my partner and I both read enthusiastically. We’ve given each other his books as birthday and anniversary presents, and sometimes quote bits at each other. The gentleman knows his way around a story. He fills his books with vivid characters. More impressively, he can put a fistful of those arrogant, sardonic, clever people in the same room and not have their personalities or dialogue blur: when Aliera’s snapping at Vlad, it sounds different than Vlad snapping at Aliera. That’s harder than it looks.

If you don’t know Brust, I’d start with the Taltos books. There are some trade omnibuses available–the first is The Book of Jhereg, not to be confused with Jhereg, which is a single novel. If you like Dumas, start with The Phoenix Guards and follow the Khaavren romances through to their conclusion at the end of Sethra Lavode. If you’re not into swords-and-sorcery fantasy, but like magic, try The Gypsy or Agyar. To Reign in Hell is great but defies easily classification. I want to say it’s Biblical materialism, and that’s almost right. But not quite.

Anyway, go read his stuff. If you’ve already read it, keep an eye out for his new book and think happy thoughts.