Brokedown Palace: A Brief Review
Apparently, Tad Williams (international bestselling fantasy and science fiction author) said, “Steven Brust might be America’s best fantasy writer.” The cover art for Brokedown Palace was done by Alan Lee, and the back of the book boasted Brust as the bestselling author of Dragon and Issola.
Perhaps I should have read one of those.
Brokedown Palace was only mildly entertaining and wildly confusing. The plot was disjointed; the characters, unrealistic; and the themes, muddled. Granted, Brokedown Palace was published in 1986, and the fantastical fiction genre has come a long way. I’m sure Brust has grown as an author since then as well, as he is still publishing. As far as Brokedown Palace goes, though, I have trouble even summarizing it. It seemed to be about a palace that needed to be rebuilt or replaced, but some people didn’t want to do that because of reasons. All the motivations were really unrealistic and hard to identify with.
Sympathetic characters can often result in nuanced antagonists. Brokedown Palace, however, did not have a clear antagonist at all. King László acted out of denial. He could sometimes admit there was a problem, but forbid anyone from creating solutions and repeatedly tried to kill his younger brother Miklós for trying to start such a conversation. The Demon Goddess was also against replacing the decrepit palace, but it was never clear why. Sándor, the wizard, was the king’s loyal advisor, who worked hard to help protect the kingdom. He even offered to make Miklós his apprentice, but for some inadequately explained reason this was bad. Captain Viktor planned to usurp the throne, and thought the king was an idiot for denying the palace’s problems, but during the climax, just before he betrayed the king, he was brushed aside as unimportant.
They all end of dead in the end. The king commits suicide. The goddess’ is killed by a few drops of blood landing on her face. Her death at Miklós’ hands was unclear (She died when a few drops of blood landed on her face. Maybe she didn’t die, though, it’s kind of unclear.) and slightly disturbing since Miklós seemed to be the main character and there was never an explanation of why it was either necessary or justified. She seemed to be the kingdom’s protector. Sándor falls to his death because he can no longer access his Power for some reason. Finally, Viktor is killed by Prince Vilmos, who strikes him in self-defense.
The relationships are all baffling as well. The talking táltos horse Bölk—some sort of magical beast that may once have been a bull and is reincarnated into a talking staff at the end—is heard to say different things by different people any time he speaks. As a result, any conversation with him that involves more than one person quickly dissolves into nonsense because each person responds to whatever they think they heard. Yet, Bölk is Miklós’ advisor. The misunderstandings are no limited to the things Bölk says, either. Other characters seem to hear things differently than the speaker said. This makes the dialogue bewildering and a bit pointless, as nothing is communicated. As a reader, I began to doubt the view point characters’ (there were many: Miklós, László, Mariska, Brigitta, Andor, Sándor, Viktor, Vilmos) interpretation of any particular detail.
The lack of a clear antagonist made the story more difficult to follow. It was punctuated by short stories involving the world the story took place in, but instead of making the setting more interesting, it just confused things further. The strange motivations of the characters tended to emphasize the aimless feel to the novel. One of the princes, the second brother Andor, actually flitters through his privileged life looking for something worthwhile to do. When he thinks he has accomplished such a thing, he considers committing suicide. His behavior seems to me to embody the plot.
Miklós traveled to the Mountains of Faerie where he endured some sort of servitude and gained a small amount of Power like Sándor’s, which helps him and allows him to see beautiful patterns in the world. However, his lover Brigitta has more of this power and that is bad because of her ambiguous lineage—her father was a demon?—and she advises Miklós against using the Power or learning with Sándor. In the end, because of her Power, she must leave with their unborn daughter and Miklós doesn’t try to stop her. The old palace was completely replaced, and all the bad guys are dead, but the one over-used symbol of hope and new life is sent away, presumably to lead a good life elsewhere. This, like the rest of the story, is unclear, and thus difficult to interpret. What is Brust trying to say? There is too much going on and too little explained.
Brokedown Palace was not a great book. I kept expecting it to pull the seemingly random threads together, but it never did. I was left with a tangle of string that I feel was supposed to be something like a scarf, but isn’t. I only really liked the character Vilmos because he had pets. I disliked László because he disliked the animals. Miklós liked them, as did the Countess Mariska, so I was more sympathetic towards them. And that was the only redeeming element. My advice: don’t waste your time with this book. Try Dragon or Issola instead.