Brokedown Palace is a fantasy fable, as told by Stephen Brust.
The tale itself is set in the Dragaeran world of Vlad Taltos in the human (Easterner) kingdom of Fenario, which borders the land of Faerie (Dragaera). Legend tells that mighty Fenarr established the land and brought it peace by riding a Taltos horse (talking horse) across the mountains into Faerie, where he took up the magic sword Allam, and forced the lords of Faerie to swear to leave his people alone forever. (Of course, another view of the legend of Fenarr is found in The Phoenix Guards, where we see him from the Faerie (Dragaera) view point.)
If you are interested in reading this book because it is set in Brust’s Dragaera, I would feel remiss in not pointing out that – while the dragaera are mentioned at various times in the story – they have little part in the actual plot of this tale. So be forewarned.
The majority of the action in Brokedown Palace takes place within the confines of the actually Palace of the Fenario Kings, which has become a crumbling ruin. There King Laszlò, the oldest of four brothers, rules in his father’s stead, aware of the decay of his home but steadfastly determined to maintain the status quo. With him resides his three brothers: Prince Andor, the second oldest, is a man seeking meaning in his life; Prince Vilmos is a giant of a man, endowed with physical strength and limited intellect – or so it seems; and lastly, Miklòs, who is the deep thinker of the family.
Our tale begins with Miklòs and King Laszlò having argued, and the younger brother throwing himself into the mighty river beside the palace to save his life. The younger brother miraculously survives his watery flight, is found by a taltos horse like his ancient forefather was, and is taken into the land of Faerie.
After several years, Miklòs grows weary of his life in Faerie and longs to go back to his riverside home, so one day he leaves his master’s lands and does just that.
When he gets there, of course, it does not live up to Miklòs’ memories, and he finds that the joy of his reappearance among his brothers is mingled with suspicion of him. This wariness a byproduct of the growth of a mysterious tree in his long vacated rooms.
Soon, Miklòs finds himself clashing with his brother the king yet again. Now though – armed with the power of Faerie, a taltos horse, and a mission for change – he will not flee his home, but is determined to transform the palace for the better. The remainder of the tale concerns itself with this struggle for change and the mysterious tree.
For those wishing to try this story, you need to keep several things in mind: one funny and one serious.
The funny item first. Supposedly, the title of the novel, the “tall tales” in the book as well as the names of places and things were all inspired by the Grateful Dead. On the Dead’s American Beauty album, there is a song titled “Brokedown Palace”, which talks about returning to a riverside home a different person after a long journey. As for the “tall tales,” an example of the Dead’s influence can be seen in the story of the boy trying to win the Princess, where he meets the Demon Goddess in three guises: one twice his age, one twice his height, and one twice his weight. Those three forms are specifically mentioned in the Dead song “I Need a Miracle.” And an example of the Grateful Dead’s influence on place names is clearly seen by Cukros Elofa, which – supposedly – is Hungarian for Sugar Magnolia: another track on the Dead’s American Beauty album. So basically, the whole novel can be viewed as a tribute, of sorts, to the Grateful Dead.
Now, the more serious thing to keep in mind. This is not a standard fantasy novel, but is more correctly labeled a folk tale, or fable.
As most of you are aware, a fable is a fictional story that generally “features animals, mythical creatures, plants, inanimate objects or forces of nature which are anthropomorphized (given human qualities such as verbal communication), and that illustrates or leads to an interpretation of a moral lesson (a “moral”), which may at the end be added explicitly in a pithy maxim.” Wikipedia. A “maxim” is a wise saying, “especially one intended to advise or recommend a course of conduct.” Wikipedia. And this is exactly what Brust is writing: a fable regarding the inevitable societal clash between the old status quo and the new.
Indeed, in this novel, Brust uses everything as an allegory for society as a whole. The palace itself is the sociopolitical status quo, which is aging and showing signs of decay. King Laszlò is the stagnant dominant class, attempting to maintain the status quo. The government of this status quo is represented by the magical sword, Allam. Prince Miklòs represents the Proletariat, who are subordinate but demanding that change takes place. Prince Andor is the representation of religious adherents (he is shown as a follower of the Demon Goddess: the land’s patron deity) and is portrayed as ignorant, gluttonous, and lacking motivation to discover the truth on his own. The wizard Sandor is the religious leader, who rules over Andor (religious adherents) and influences the ruling elite so as to maintain power. Prince Vilmos represents the majority of society: fully of mighty strength yet slow to respond to change and bound tightly in its loyalty to tradition. Bolk, the taltos horse, is the voice of reason/science, prodding his student, Miklòs, toward a revolutionary upheaval. And the mysterious “tree” is the evolution of a sociopolitical change, which the dominant class wishes to contain or destroy.
Naturally, all these divergent interests take sides and struggle among themselves throughout the book, as would be expected, because – according to Karl Marx – history is nothing but a constantly class struggle and social upheaval.
Now, am I saying this “fable” Brust has given his readers is nothing but a literary device to expound the virtues of revolution or Marxism?
Some people view it as such, but I suppose it can be read as merely an entertaining novel – if you overlook the lack of anything happening. Because the majority of this book is focused on a palace crumbling down and the brothers taking sides whether to destroy a tree growing out of it. Quite simply, that is what the story is about.
I personally find allegorical stories boring, especially ones where the story is about nothing but the sociopolitical message of the writer. Unfortunately, there is practically no way to read Brokedown Palace without being slapped in the face over and over again with the philosophical message that Brust is expounding.
Allow me to give a few, simple examples of this.
One of the first steps in Miklòs change for the better at his palace home is the destruction of religion. Naturally, there is no way to solve the decrepit edifices issues without the kingdom’s patron goddess being destroyed, or at least, that is what Miklòs trusty, taltos horse, Bolk, advises him.
“But – the Goddess. You can’t be serious.” (Miklòs)
“Have I ever been anything else, dear master?” (Bolk)
“But how? How can I fight the Goddess?”
“It is what I am for.”
“But you said you couldn’t-”
“I cannot. You can. I shall be your weapon.”
“But what will it gain us?”
“It will remove a powerful weapon from those who wish to
destroy the tree. It is the Goddess who inspires them against it. Without her, much of their will to fight will be gone.”
And when Miklòs and Blok finally set out to destroy the goddess, they go to the palace’s central courtyard, where her statue resides. Once there, our young prince contemplates the nature of his former god, specifically her statue, and wonders if his planned deicide is “. . . a desecration or perhaps the expression of a sick perversion?”
Thus, this scene – which seems out of place in the flow of events – allows Brust to explain to his readers that the appropriate methods to destroy religion – and thereby aid revolution – is either by desecrating its message or perverting it. Desecration being a violent disrespect or degradation of its tenets until no one feels it is worthy of belief anymore. While perversion is merely the act of altering something from its original meaning, misapplying its rules, or misrepresenting the true meaning. By doing either thing, religion’s influence on society will be nullified.
With the goddess dealt with, Miklòs must destroy the Palace (sociopolitical status quo), and so Brust’s avatar of the proletariat begins to manipulate his brother Vilmos (bulk of society), attempting to persuade him to join in this destruction (revolution).
“What is it you want, right now, more than anything?” (Miklòs)
“What I want? To keep my norska (children) safe?” (Vilmos)
Miklòs nodded, as if that were the answer he’d been expecting. “Good. The danger to the norska is the Palace (societal status quo), isn’t it?” Vilmos nodded. “Then the way to save them is to make it so the Palace isn’t a danger anymore.”
“Ha!” said Vilmos. “Easily said. I have been working for the
last two days to-”
“I know. But listen, Vili, remember the tree in my old room
and how you couldn’t make yourself destroy it? . . . “
”There are those who wish to destroy it (the tree). The chief
among them was the Demon Goddess.” (Miklòs)
. . . “She, like Laszlò, wished to leave the Palace standing
rather than replace it, even though it has become a danger to us all. . . If we leave it standing, it will collapse upon us.”
When Andor (religious adherents) hears this manipulation of Vimos by fear mongering, he intervenes, but Miklòs stops him by stating the following:
“. . . From as far back as I remember, you have been looking for something to make life meaningful for you. Time after time, you have failed. Why? Maybe it isn’t something you have been doing wrong, as we’ve all been thinking it was. Maybe there just isn’t any way to find out who you are, when everywhere you turn you are surrounded by either the collapse of your home or desperate efforts to hold back this destruction.
“But I have another alternative for you: embrace it. Embrace the collapse of all we’ve lived with and work to create something better in its place.”
Naturally, Andor responds by asking a simple question: “How, better? You’ve been saying what is wrong with the Palace (societal status quo), but how do I know that what you want to replace it with is better?”
Miklòs responds by stating that: “Whether it is better or worse than what we have now matters not in the least.”
Revolution for revolutions sake, I suppose?
In any event, I have read some reviews that compare this novel to Animal Farm by George Orwell, and I believe it is a fair assessment. Brokedown Palace is obviously Brust’s attempt “with full consciousness of what he (is) doing, “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole” Why I Write by George Orwell. However, here Brust is holding up revolution, or Marxism if you will, as the hope of society – not a failed experiment.
With that being said, I do not believe most fantasy fans of Mr. Brust swashbuckling Vlad Taltos or Khaavren Romances will enjoy this book. But obviously, Brokedown Palace was not written for those type of readers. It is penned for those who love analyzing a story for all the possible allegorical meanings hidden within every sentence and paragraph.
So if you need a novel to discuss with your book club and have already dissected Animal Farm, pick up Brokedown Palace. It might make you *YAWN* in its arguments in favor of Marxism, but you can spend lots of time discussing its flawed logic.