It was almost by accident I read the MS of Steven Brusts's To Reign in Hell. Actually, it was because of a courtesy on the part of the author, the story of which is not terribly material here. But that's why I said almost. I can't really consider a character trait an accident.
I read the beginning to see what he was doing. I don't know him personally. I know little about him, save what I can tell from his writing. When I realized where he was going with this story, my first reaction was, He isn't going to be able to pull this one off. Not whithout getting trite, or cute, or moralistic -- or falling into any number of the many pitfalls I foresaw with regard to this material. I was wrong. He not only avoided them all, he told a fantastically engaging story with consummate grace and genuine artistry. I had not seen anything really new done with this subject since Anatole France's Revolt of the Angels, with the possible exception of Taylor Caldwell's Dialogues with the Devil. And frankly, Brust's book is a more ambitious and successful work than Dialogues.
My immediate reaction was to provide one of those brief dust jacket comments containing a few loaded adjectives and to hope that this would help call some attention to the book and sell a few extra copies. A hell of a good book or A damned fine story sprang to mind, because I am what I am -- and they're both true, despite flippancy. But on reflection I knew that that would not be enough, because I am not always so fortunate as to encounter a writer as good as Steven Brust this early in his career. This is because there is so mych science fiction and fantasy being published these days -- and some of it very good -- that it would be a full-time job just trying to keep up with the best as it appears. I have to be selective in my reading and I miss a lot. But this time I was lucky, and I owe it to this kind of talent to remark upon it when I see it.
(I should add, here, that I have also read his other two books -- Jhereg and Yendi -- and that they are a part of the reason I am hitting these typewriter keys.)
A dust jacket blurb only gives an opinion whithout reasons, and I need a little more room because I feel obliged to tell you why I like Steven Brust's stories: Most good writers have one or two strong points for which they are known, and upon which they rely to carry a tale to its successful conclusion. Excellent plotting, say, can carry a story even if the writing itself is undistinguished. One can live with this. Good plotting is a virtue. Fine writing is a pleasure. A graceful prose stylist is a treat to read -- even if the author is shaky when it comes to plotting or characterization. And then there are the specialists in people, who can entertain and delight with their development of character, their revelations -- even if they are not strong plotters or powerful descriptive writers. And there are masters and mistresses of dialogue who can make you feel as if you are witnessing an engaging play, and you can almost forget the setting and the story while trying to anticipate what one of the characters will say next. And so on and so on.
Yes, I feel that Steven Brust has this whole catalog of virtues -- solid plotting, good prose, insightful characterizations and fine dialogue.
Going further, he has those little tricks of ironic wordplay which appeal. -- 'Milord,' called Beelzebub, 'get thee behind me.' It tickles.
And there is his use of the fabulous. Pure science fiction is, ultimately, cut-and-dried, explaining everything in the end.
Pure fantasy generally does not explain enough. A writer who respects the rational yet pays homage to the dark areas where all is not known also has my respect, as herein lies a higher level of verisimilitude, mirroring life, which really is that way. It is a mixture of light and darkness which fascinates me, personally. It is a special kind of mimesis, cutting across the categories -- and here, too, Mr. Brust wields a finely honed blade.
A rare, resourceful writer, who has distinguished himeslf in my mind this early in his career, Steven Brust: I feel he is worth noting now, for what he will achieve eventually, as well as for what he has already done.