The viscount of Adrilankha correspond donc au Vicomte de Bragelonne, de même que The Phoenix Guards correspondait aux Trois Mousquetaires et Five Hundred Years After à Vingt ans après. Le cadre du récit est toujours le même: l’univers d’héroic-fantasy créé par Brust, qu’il approfondit dans ses nombreux romans.
Five Hundred Years After s’était achevé sur la destruction de l’Empire: The viscount of Adrilankha se déroule quelque temps plus tard. La disparition des structures administratives et des moyens de transport a entraîné une régression généralisée de la civilisation de ce monde quasi-médiéval. L’ex-Empire est désormais morcelé en territoires dominés par des seigneurs locaux, certains rêvant de reconstruire l’Empire à leur profit. C’est notamment le cas de Skinter, duc de Kâna, particulièrement organisé, qui convoite le pouvoir suprême. Parmi ses principaux conseillers figure Pel (Aramis), toujours aussi intrigant et ambitieux.
Mais l’ordre qui prévaut dans ce monde voudrait que le nouvel Empereur soit issu de la Maison du Phénix. Or, celle-ci a été entièrement détruite dans la catastrophe de la fin de Five Hundred Years After. A l’exception d’une jeune fille, Zerika, qui se trouve donc être l’héritière légitime du trône.
Pour espérer rebâtir l’Empire, il lui faut cependant aller demander aux dieux de lui rendre l’Orbe, instrument du pouvoir suprême, qu’ils ont récupéré lors de l’effondrement du dit Empire. D’où une quête des plus dangereuses pour aller plaider sa cause auprès des dieux, dans le Chemin des Morts.
Dans cette expédition, Zerika bénéficie de l’aide d’un ami d’enfance, Piro, vicomte d’Adrilankha et fils de Khaavren (d’Artagnan), ainsi que de celle de Tazendra (Porthos). Il leur faut affronter toutes sortes d’ennemis, mages et brigands. A la fin de ce premier tome, Zerika convainc les dieux de lui faire confiance et reçoit l’Orbe. Il ne lui reste plus qu’à rebâtir l’Empire en éliminant ses ennemis, comme le duc de Kâna.
En parallèle de ce récit principal, le livre suit de nombreux autres personnages: rivaux de Zerika, héritiers de grandes maisons prêts à se rallier à l’Empire légitime, etc… Parmi ces personnages, on retrouve Khaavren (d’Artagnan), reclus dans son château et confit de remords pour n’avoir pas réussi à empêcher la mort de l’Empereur, dont il était chef des gardes, dans Five Hundred Years After. On voit également Aerich (Athos), qui mène une vie paisible mais ne demanderait pas mieux que de repasser à l’action.
Le lien direct entre Dumas et Brust tient bien sûr aux personnages des quatre mousquetaires. Pel/Aramis et Khaavren/d’Artagnan sont très convaincants dans la transposition de leurs modèles – même si Khaavren qui, par un glissement de l’intrigue se trouve être le père du vicomte qui donne son nom au livre, évoque parfois tout autant Athos.
Tazendra, étonnante réincarnation féminine de Porthos, prend dans ce volume une stature certaine en tant que garde du corps de la future impératrice. Aerich/Athos apparaît relativement peu, mais l’on peut supposer qu’il jouera un rôle plus important dans la suite du récit.
Une belle scène, dans l’esprit des Mousquetaires, intervient quand, après avoir rendu visite à Khaavren et avoir constaté à quel point c’est un homme brisé, Pel complote avec Aerich pour lui envoyer quelqu’un capable, sortilège à l’appui, de le convaincre qu’il peut encore être utile et actif, et lui redonner goût à la vie (voir extrait ci-dessous).
L’hommage à Dumas, enfin, tient plus généralement à l’atmosphère et à l’écriture du livre: vitalité, bonne humeur, ironie… Les dialogues, en particulier, constituent un clin d’œil, parfois un peu appuyé, aux feuilletons du XIXème siècle, avec des échanges du genre :
- Vous connaissez la nouvelle?
- Non. Il y a une nouvelle?
- Et comment!
- Voulez-vous la connaître?
- Je ne demande pas mieux!
- Alors, je vais vous la dire.
- Eh bien voilà…
The Paths of the Dead constitue une introduction alléchante à ce qui promet d’être le couronnement d’une trilogie particulièrement originale en hommage au chef d’œuvre de Dumas.
"Ah, you think so!"
"I am certain of it."
Daro didn't answer him; she knew that further argument from her would do no good. Therefore, she did the one thing she could do: she gave an eloquent look to Tevna, the pyrologist. Tevna, for his part, saw at once that he was being looked at, and, moreover, understood that this glance was significant. To Tevna's credit, this glance, along with the conversation of the previous night, were sufficient for him to understand, at once, what was being asked of him.
"Well now," said Tevna, turning his eyes from the Countess and looking, not at the Count, but rather at the fire. He then seemed to address the fire, rather than Khaavren, as he said, "I hate to dispute with you, my dear kinsman, but I am not entirely certain that what you have said is correct."
"How, you think I have erred in some way?"
Tevna now looked away from the fire, as if he had seen what it had to show him, and turned to the Count, saying, "That is, there may be matters that you have not yet considered."
"Well, that is possible, because one cannot consider everything; the mind is unable to grasp everything."
"That is certainly true," said Tevna. "And so you will listen to what I have to say?"
"Of a certainty I will, for two reasons: In the first place, because what you say makes sense; and, in the second, because you are both a guest and a kinsman, and therefore I owe you the courtesy of listening to you in any case."
"Well, then, here is what I have to say."
"I assure you, you have my entire attention."
Tevna started to speak, then hesitated.
"Come, kinsman," said Khaavren. "Say what you wish."
"Well, but I'm afraid I may be overstepping the bounds of courtesy."
Khaavren shrugged. "Nevertheless, I wish to hear it."
"Very well, then: I tell you that you are in pain."
"Yes, my dear host. Your soul has been hurt from what you perceive as a failure, and this causes you discomfort. I know this pain, because it is a twin of my own."
"I beg your pardon, but, even if what you say is true - and I don't deny it - I fail to see how this relates to our conversation."
"You do not?"
"Not in the least, I assure you."
"Well, I will explain it."
"Very well, I will continue to listen while you do so."
"Here it is, then: There is one thing that pain, whether of the body or the soul, always does."
"And that is?"
"It draws the sufferer's attention inward."
"You think so?"
"Believe me, Count; in my work, I have seen many people in pain, and the one thing they have in common is that it is very difficult for them to consider what is going on around them, because pain in the body or suffering in the soul invariably pulls the mind to itself; it is when we are not in pain that we are able to see clearly outside of ourselves. "
Khaavren considered this carefully; Daro, we should add, remained utterly silent, but listened to Tevna with her whole attention. At length, Khaavren said, "Well, you may be right."
"I am convinced that I am. And, if I am right—"
"Well, if you are?"
"Then you must permit me to continue."
"Very well, continue then."
"Here, then, is the rest: Because you are in pain, you are unable to look clearly at all that occurs around you, and, because of this, you have missed a vital fact."
"Ah! I have missed a fact?"
"I believe so."
"And a vital fact?"
"Well, what is this vital fact that I have missed?"
"You wish me to tell you? "
"I should like nothing better."
"Here it is, then: The events that are happening in the world, if your wife the Countess is correct, are bigger than you."
"Well, but I do not disagree with that."
"You do not?"
"Not at all."
"But, you perceive, if they are bigger than you, than, my dear kinsman, your own pain, and your own desires, are suddenly less important than they were."
"How, less important?"
"Indeed. They matter to you, and those who love you, but go no further than that. You have been asking what you could do in the great events that are now stirring, and have found that you could do nothing. But that is because your suffering has caused you to phrase the question in the wrong way."
"I have phrased the question wrongly?"
"That is my opinion."
"By asking what I could do, I have asked the wrong question?"
"But then, will you tell me what I ought to have asked?"
"I will do so this very instant, if you wish."
"I am most anxious to hear it."
"Then I will tell you."
"And you will be right to do so."
"Here it is then: Instead of asking what you could do, you ought to have been asking what needs to be done."
Khaavren considered this for a moment, then said, "The difference, you perceive, is very subtle."
"Perhaps it is subtle, but I believe it is important."
"You think so?"
"More than important, it is vital."
"You believe, then, that were I to look at matters differently, I would reach a different conclusion?"
"Well, but is that not often the case? Consider a man at some distance holding a sword. When looked at one way, you might perceive a sword, when looked at another way, you might see only a thin line, or perhaps not even that."
"Well, you are right about that."
"And yet, it remains a sword."
"The Horse! You are right again!"
"I am glad we agree, my dear kinsman."
"But what conclusion do you pretend I would reach, were I to see matters differently?"
"Oh, as to that-"
"I cannot say. "
"Ah! That is too bad!"
"And yet "
"You have, then a suspicion?"
"Exactly. I have a suspicion."
"I suspect that you would cease worrying about your infirmities, and, instead, you would set out to do what must be done."
"Cha! But then, I have never been good for much, save that my sword arm was tolerably steady."
"Well, that is not so little."
"Perhaps not, yet that, by itself, is no longer true."
"How, it is no longer true?"
"I give you my word, I can no longer lift my old sword, much less wield it in a manner to threaten another."
"Well, but have you considered exercise?"
"Yes. In order to rebuild your strength."
"Do you know, I had not thought of that."
Khaavren turned Daro, a look of astonishment upon his countenance. "Do you think," he said, "that such a thing is possible?"
"My dear Count," she said, "I am convinced you can do whatever you set your mind to."
"Ah. But then, I was never much good without Aerich, Tazendra, and Pel."
"Pel can be found, I think, inasmuch as he left a means to reach him when he visited us."
"Well, that is true."
"And, as for your other friends—"
"Yes, as for them?"
"Once you have your strength back, well, you can send for them, or, if you do not know where they are, you can go and look for them."
"Yes, that is true as well."
Khaavren looked at his hand. He inspected both sides of it, as if wondering if there remained any strength within it upon which he might draw. Daro, as if reading his thoughts, laid her own hand on top of his, and, at the same time, smiled at Tevna.
"Let no one say," she told the pyrologist, "that you are not highly skilled at your profession."
Tevna rose to his feet and bowed to her.
Khaavren appeared not to have heard this remark, but stared into the fire, thinking, the flames reflecting in his eyes as if, indeed, the fire were coming from within him.