Fantasy set on the world Dragaera (like Brust's paperback ``Vlad Taltos'' yarns), consciously modeled on Dumas, Sabatini, et al., complete with an irritatingly intrusive author, thudding bodies on every page, and chunks of impenetrable description like those William Goldman happily omitted from The Princess Bride. Four young noble warriors--Khaavren, Aerich, Tazendra, Pel- -meet and, united in their resolve to join the Emperor's elite Guards, become fast friends. In a plot of inordinate convolutions, including a surprise addendum where they are faced with summary execution, the swashbuckling quartet becomes involved in an attempt to overthrow the weak but good-hearted Emperor, though they are never sure whose side they or anyone else is on. The Dumas imitation isn't nearly as appealing as Brust seems to think: where light brushstrokes are required, he lays it on with a trowel. Still, the dialogue is snappy and amusing, the scenario holds many attractions (a preponderance of sword over sorcery; warriors are female as often as male, and attack the opposite sex without a qualm; the survivors live for thousands of years), and a certain charm shines through despite Brust's efforts to pretend that he's really someone else.