Steven Brust: Vlad the Wanderer

A little over a year ago I reviewed the first arc of Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series. A year later, here I am to review the second arc. I don’t know that Brust thinks of this series in arcs like this, much less these specific sets of books as the arcs, but the last book of each of these two sets felt like pretty resounding “we’ve wrapped up this chunk of the story and now we’re moving on to something else” points to me. But, your mileage may vary.

As with last time, I’ll try to keep this spoiler-light. But as we get deeper into the series, it becomes difficult not to spoil some moments from earlier in the series. And in particular I’m going to spoil some of the end of the last arc because I can’t really discuss this arc without it.

The Phoenix Guards, MMPB, Tor, © 1991, ISBN 0-812 50689-8

Cover of The Phoenix Guards, by Steven Brust

This book is the first of a set of five called the Khaavren Romances, and while technically not part of the Vlad Taltos series, they are part of the overall Dragaera series, and they fit in pretty well when reading the books in publication order.

These five are named after their nominal protagonist, Khaavren, a Tiassa who in this book is a young man who sets off for Dragaera City to join the Emperor’s Phoenix Guards. They are written by a fictional Dragaeran novelist, Paarfi of Roundwood, who lives in the “present day” (i.e., is contemporary with Vlad Taltos), assembles his histories through diligent research, then writes them as dramatic adventures. But this story takes place a thousand years or more before the Vlad novels.

These books are also heavily influenced by Alexandre Dumas’ D’Artagnan Romances (or so I’m told, as I haven’t read those), and their titles are based on the ones in that series.

All that said, The Phoenix Guards is, along with Brokedown Palace, my least favorite book that I’ve read in the series, which was extra-frustrating given its length.

The book is more than twice as long as the individual Vlad novels, and it’s written in a very elliptical style, sometimes taking half a page or more to get from “let’s start this piece of dialogue” to “actually getting to the point of the dialogue”. And there’s little variation in this approach, with a heavy dose of courtesy and deference and particular turns of phrase. After a couple hundred pages of this I learned to actually skip that half a page to get to the point and it made the reading experience much more enjoyable. After talking to other people who read this book, it seems like you either like this sort of thing or you don’t, and I did not.

I found the story itself to be pretty thin: Khaavren meets three comrades on his journey and they all join the Guard. Then they end up setting out to capture a woman wanted for murder. Along the way they pick up a couple more companions, “have many adventures”, learn that one of their companions wants the wanted woman’s blood, get involved in a standoff that could lead to war, and then manage to clear everything up. This sounds like a lot, but most of it is “have many adventures”. It’s an episodic novel which chugs along at a fairly even pace, albeit for far too long for my tastes.

The best part the interplay between Khaavren and his friends. But Khaavren is the only one who’s really vividly drawn; his three friends are more archetypes than fully rounded characters. The fourth of them, Pel, joins up in a manner that made me think for the whole rest of the book that he was actually aligned with the villains and was going to betray the rest at some point.

There are some interesting parallels between this one and Brokedown Palace in that they both involve encounters between the Dragaeran Empire and Easterners, but since they’re my two least favorite books in the series to date, I’m not motivated to go back and see if there’s more meaning to be found in them.

Many people love The Phoenix Guards, and my impression is that it was a major factor in putting Brust on the map as one of the great contemporary fantasy authors (I remember seeing it all over the place in the mid-90s when going to conventions), so feel free to take my opinion with a grain of salt.

Athyra, MMPB, Ace, © 1993, ISBN 0-441-03342-3

Cover of Athyra, by Steven Brust

When we left Vlad at the end of Phoenix, he had broken up with his wife, left all his property to her and to his friends, and was on the run from his former House, the Jhereg, who were seeking revenge against him. After two years of wandering – with only his Jhereg familiar Loiosh and Loiosh’s mate Rocza – he rolls up at the very rural village of Smallcliff, where he meets Savn, a young man apprenticed to the local physicker. Vlad happens to show up at the same time as the death of a former servant of the local Baron.

In contrast to the earlier books, this one is narrated by Savn, giving us a very different perspective on Vlad. It’s also a small and intimate story in which Savn has a bit of hero worship, learns some sorcery and witchcraft from Vlad, and helps him in the job that Vlad decides he has to do in the area. The second half of the book has some of the most brutal scenes of the series to date, and many of the characters are put through the wringer before we reach the end.

It’s a pretty good book, but its grim tone and the replacement of Vlad’s sardonic voice with Savn’s inexperienced and earnest one makes it less enjoyable overall. I see what Brust was going for here, and maybe having Vlad narrate this particular story wouldn’t have given it the punch it has. But hoo boy, it is a rough trip at times.

This is also one of those books where I wonder about naming the books after the Great Houses, as the connection to the house of Athyra seems pretty tenuous. Based on this description of the house, and the sometimes-stated principle that Vlad adopts characteristics of the house in the book of that title, I can see it, but it’s the sort of thing that would be more effective if made more clear in the novel’s text.

Five Hundred Years After, MMPB, Tor, © 1994, ISBN 0-812-51522-6

Cover of Five Hundred Years After, by Steven Brust

The sequel to The Phoenix Guards, this book takes us back to the adventures of Khaavren and company, many years (I’ll let you guess how many) after their previous ones. Khaavren is now the head of the guards, while his friends have their own careers.

Khaavren uncovers a conspiracy to sow discord in the empire, which is already in shaky condition thanks to the incompetence of the current Emperor. While there is also an element of “they had many adventures” to this story, there’s also a growing sense of dread as the shadowy plan is slowly executed, which builds towards insurrection and then one of the seminal events of the modern Empire. As such, it feels like a much more meaningful and relevant book than The Phoenix Guards, that book now seeming to me like a light preface to this one. The banter among the friends is less present and much missed (two of those friends don’t feature much in the book), but the plot more than makes up for it. Also, thankfully, the elliptical writing style of the first book is greatly toned down. (It still feels like it could have been a hundred or more pages shorter.)

All that said, this book is important reading for what comes later in the series, as it provides important historical context, and even insight into one of the major supporting characters (as Dragaerans are very long-lived).

Orca, MMPB, Ace, © 1996, ISBN 0-441-00196-3

Cover of Orca, by Steven Brust

We return to Vlad after another year or so where he’s continued to wander around, this time not just to avoid the Jhereg, but also to discharge a deep obligation he owes someone. He finds a person who can help him with that, but in order to do so he has to solve the riddle of why a local businessman was killed. This gets him wrapped up in a plot by the Orca, who are a sort of combination of the local mob and aggregation of street gangs. Vlad recruits his friend Kiera the Thief to help him out, and the narration alternates between the two of them (with a few notable interludes). They find the plot is much farther-reaching than they’d dreamed, and Vlad has to do some clever sleuthing and fast thinking to resolve things.

It’s a pretty enjoyable adventure, especially if you enjoy the sleuthing, which is sort of the Dragaeran equivalent of hard-boiled detective investigations. But there are a couple of significant revelations at the end of the book. One of them is perhaps not so surprising (and arguably a bit cliché), but the other shines a very different light on the relationship between Vlad and one of his friends, which seems likely to have some real influence on how things play out in the future.

Dragon, MMPB, Tor, © 1998, ISBN 0-812-58916-5

Cover of Dragon, by Steven Brust

Dragon is another flashback novel, this time to not long after the events of Taltos. Vlad’s ally Morrolan – who by the end of this novel will invite Vlad to head up his castle’s security, thus establishing the status quo of Jhereg – hires Vlad to guard a cache of weapons left behind by a recently deceased Dragon lord. Another Dragon lord steals one of these weapons, leading Morrolan, who is also – you guessed it – a Dragon – to declare war. Vlad enlists (!) in Morrolan’s army, largely because the other lord has given Vlad a personal reason to want to be involved. Morrolan hires the formidable Sethra Lavode – a long-lived and maybe undead sorcerer who’s cast a long shadow over the series but is about to become a lot more significant – as his general. Vlad spends most of the war (1) hating warfare, and (2) figuring out how to get close to the other lord.

Dragons are a major house in the series, partly because Morrolan is one, and partly because they’re going to be the next house to rule the Empire once the Phoenix dynasty ends. They’re almost kind of comical to this point (an evaluation which would no doubt get me run through if I ever met one of them), as hard-headed, combat-ready fighters who are quick to offense. Dragon gives us a lot of exposure to and some insight into Dragons, but doesn’t move the needle a lot regarding their character.

This volume also establishes some important pieces of Vlad’s backstory, and the return of Vlad’s narrative voice is very welcome, even if some chunks of the book seem like “a lot of running around”. But this is merely the calm before…

Issola, MMPB, Tor, © 2001, ISBN 0-812-58917-3

Cover of Issola, by Steven Brust

…the storm, which arrives when the Jenoine, the near-god-like beings who predates human presence on the planet, capture Morrolan and Aliera. Morrolan’s aide Lady Teldra (the Issola of the title) tracks Vlad down and recruits him to help, taking him to Sethra Lavode, who manages to transport him to where the captives are being held.

And then things get really interesting.

There’s an undercurrent of the Dragaeran novels in which they could be seen as either science fiction or fantasy. While there’s really no science fictional explanation for the kind of magic we see in the books (other than Clarke’s Third Law, though the way the magic is depicted doesn’t suggest that’s in play), this book is the strongest case for science fiction that we’ve yet seen, as it involves multiple planets (probably), and the origins of Easterner and Dragaeran humans (probably exactly what you’re thinking, if you’ve read the series this far). On the other hand, it also concerns gods, primordial goo, souls, and, well, magic. Vlad is playing maybe the highest-stakes game of his life, supported by some of the most powerful beings he’s ever known, and it’s an incredibly tense story, albeit with an unusual amount of exposition in it. (Though she’s maybe the greatest general in Dragaeran history, whenever Sethra shows up we can expect a bunch of exposition.)

Plus it has some of the best Vlad/Loiosh interplay of the series. Lady Teldra is a nice, even-tempered counterbalance to Vlad’s ball of energy and anxiety, and one of the few people who gives Vlad straight answers when she can. (On that note, it’s also nice to see Vlad pop off at Morrolan and Sethra in this book, something every smarter-than-thou Dragaeran deserves to be on the receiving end of once in a while.) This is easily the best book of the arc, and one of the best of the series. Kudos to Brust for making Lady Teldra such a strong and engaging character in a single book, when she’s competing for space with Vlad and three of the other major supporting characters.

Overall, this arc feels like Brust was assembling key story pieces on top of the basic set-up from the first arc, leading to a big payoff in Issola, but also setting things up so that we can really go almost anywhere after this, presumably with even more serious repercussions.

But first I know we’re next going back to the last three of the Khaavren Romances, which look like they’ll fill in even more of Dragaera’s history. So it will be another 1,200+ pages before I find out where Vlad goes from here.

Steven Brust: Vlad the Assassin

Last spring I read and reviewed Steven Brust‘s first novel Jhereg, which is also the first in his Dragaeran series of novels, most of which are about the human assassin Vlad Taltos living in the house-based Dragaeran empire. Despite its short length (though not really all that short for when it was published, in the early 1980s), I was really impressed with its scope and world building, while still having a lively and textured story.

I’ve read several more in the series since then (yes yes, I am a slow reader, but these are not the only books I’ve been reading), and reached what I think is a good point to review a batch of them. Spoiler: I don’t think any of them attain the height of Jhereg, though most of them are entertaining in their own way. Consequently I don’t have as much to say about each of them as I did about Jhereg, so I’m covering them all in this entry.

I’ll try to keep this spoiler-light.

Yendi, MMPB, Ace, © 1984, ISBN 0-441-94456-6

Cover of Yendi, by Steven Brust

These early novels in the series are published out of chronological order. In Jhereg, Vlad is an established mid-level mafia boss for the Jhereg, he’s married to a woman named Cacti, and he has powerful Draegarian sorcerer friends. Yendi takes place a number of years earlier, when he’s a low-level boss, and gets into. turf war with a rival boss. The early chapters spend a lot of time on Vlad’s territory (including a map!) and organization, and it is, frankly, kind of dull.

It gets more lively when his rival starts trying to assassinate him, which leads to him meeting and falling in love with Cawti, while he’s convalescing from one attempt. The two fall head over heels in love (and into bed) with each other, and while I understand that this happens sometimes, it felt very abrupt and unlikely. I would have chalked it up to an awkward moment in the story which didn’t quite work, except that it unfortunately sets the tone for Cawti’s presence in the series: She’s not really there as a character, we never get a feel for Vlad’s relationship with or love for her – it’s mostly told and not shown. She feels less fleshed out than Sethra Lavode, who only appears in a few scenes across all these books.

The story otherwise is structured as a mystery/puzzle similar to Jhereg, but while the final conflict is lively enough, the reveal of who’s behind it feels not at all well set up. This is in keeping with the spirit of the Yendi house in Dragaera, but it doesn’t work well in a story of this sort.

While most of the Vlad novels are named after Dragaeran great houses, Yendi seems an odd choice of title for this one. Sure, the villain is a Yendi, but it’s such a small part of the book, and doesn’t even seem to capture the spirit of the story overall that it feels forced. This isn’t the first time I’ll feel this way about the title.

Brokedown Palace, MMPB, Ace, © 1986, ISBN 0-441-07181-3

Cover of Brokedown Palace, by Steven Brust

This is not a Vlad novel, but takes place an indeterminate – but large – number of years earlier, in the Eastern lands of Fenario that Vlad’s human family hails from. Fenario is ruled by the eldest of four brothers, Kind Laszlo, with the middle two as his right-hand men. His youngest brother, Prince Miklos, has a strained relationship with him. The family’s difficulties are also embodied in the the decaying palace in which they live, problems which Miklos perceives but Laszlo feels defensive about, further straining their relationship. Following an especially violent falling out, Miklos spends a couple of years in the west, in the lands of Faerie – which we know are Dragaera – and returns to try to save his family and homeland.

The story has the feel of a lengthy fable, with characters which feel like archetypes rather than rounded people, and events which often seem arbitrary and portentous, leading to a climax which seems like it should be meaningful but felt empty to me. I’ve read that the book is pretty polarizing, so put me on the side of those who didn’t enjoy it so much. Many of the details of the setting show up in the later Vlad novels, so in that sense I’m glad to have read it, but I’d say it rates at the bottom of the books in the series I’ve read so far.

Teckla, MMPB, Ace, © 1987, ISBN 0-441-79977-9

Cover of Teckla, by Steven Brust

Teckla takes place not long after Jhereg. Cawti gets involved with some revolutionaries in South Adrilankha – the section of the city where most of the Easterners (i.e., humans) live, including Vlad’s grandfather. Humans and the Teckla house are oppressed in Dragaeran society, and the revolutionaries want to end the oppression. Trying to keep Cawti from getting killed, Vlad gets tangled up with the Jhereg boss who’s attacking them, as well as the revolutionaries themselves, including their leader, Kelly, even as his marriage is disintegrating.

There are a lot of moving pieces to this one, but the overall impact is badly undercut by Cawti still being just a shadow of a character, and us having very little insight or investment in her and Vlad’s relationship. Their struggles feel very true-to-life – Vlad doesn’t understand Cawti’s behavior, he’s driven to try to protect her whether she wants it or not, and he makes some bad decisions as a result – but it’s just not a very good story. The thread of the oppression of the lower classes would be plenty on its own, maybe even better if Cawti wasn’t involved, or if they didn’t have such a big wall between them. But, it is what it is. The ending feels too pat, but I think this volume is largely about putting storylines in motion.

Taltos, MMPB, Ace, © 1988, ISBN 0-441-18200-3

Cover of Taltos, by Steven Brust

Taltos again rolls back the clock and takes place even before Yendi, when Vlad is a fairly new member of the jhereg. It’s the most enjoyable entry since Jhereg, even if it is mostly filling in missing pieces to his background. The main story explains the origins of his friendship (or is ‘alliance’ a better term?) with Morrolan, Aliera and Seth Lavode. Interspersed are passages which detail his life from childhood to joining the Jhereg, about his father and grandfather and developing his hatred of Dragaerans.

Unlike earlier novels which have a “vexing puzzle to solve” structure, this one has a combination of coming-of-age and mythic-quest structure, which gives it a rather different feel. The coming-of-age part feels more organic and satisfying, while the later mythic-quest part feels a bit preprogrammed (as these stories often do – it’s why I don’t care for The Dark is Rising, which takes that fault to the extreme), though it does humanize Morrolan considerably over his previous appearances. In the aggregate it does a lot to tie together the different pieces of Vlad’s life and personality – all the pieces except his marriage, really. If anything his life as an assassin feels like it never got explored as deeply as it could have, which is a shame since that part of his life takes a sharp turn in the next book.

Phoenix, MMPB, Ace, © 1990, ISBN 0-441-66225-0

Cover of Phoenix, by Steven Brust

This volume brings us back to the events following Teckla, but quickly head off in a surprising direction when the Demon Goddess of Vlad’s Fenarian heritage personally hires Vlad to kill the king of an island some distance from the empire. Vlad does this, but has to be rescued by Morrolan, Aliera and Cawti when he’s unable to get away – a good trick since most sorcery is blocked on the island, including most teleportation. The assassination leads to war between the Empire and the island, which in turn escalates the conflict between the Empire and Kelly’s revolutionaries, which in turn put’s Cawti at risk and forces Vlad to try to protect her.

The story jumps all over the place, and ends with one of Vlad’s more daring gambits to “solve” the problem. It also raises serious questions about the roles of deities in Dragaera (the risk when bringing gods into a story as characters is that you inevitably see them as having their own motivations and foibles, and we certainly get that here; they’re really just much more powerful characters. But perhaps that’s what Brust is going for, showing that the fable-like feel of Brokedown Palace isn’t really how things are). But it is definitely lively.

Phoenix seems to mark the end of the first phase of the series, as Vlad leaves the Jhereg and puts his old life behind him – or at least announces his intent to do so; I guess the book is called Phoenix is because he’s experiencing a rebirth. It feels like the end of the first act in a larger story, setting up whatever follows. (The house of the Phoenix plays no real role in the story.) I’m not really going to miss the Jhereg (other than Vlad’s lieutenant, Kragar, who is the most entertaining character in this slice of Vlad’s life), and Vlad’s role as a mafia boss has been feeling increasingly fraught for the nominal hero of the series (to be fair he was getting uncomfortable with his job a bit at a time over a few novels). Of course I won’t miss Cawti either (though I expect she’ll show up again). I bet we’re heading into more serious Dragaeran territory next, which means more of Morrolan, Aliera, and Seth Lavode. Which is fine with me as they’ve been the most interesting members of the supporting cast.

I think these novels feel more like an author’s early novels than Jhereg did, fumbling around a bit trying to figure out what their ultimate direction is, or maybe just the right way to head there. Despite their flaws, I’m looking forward to what comes next.

ETA: If you’re curious what I think of what comes next, you can read my review of the next arc of the series.

Steven Brust: Jhereg

Jhereg, by Steven Brust, MMPB, Ace, © 1983, ISBN 0-441-38551-6

Jhereg, by Steven Brust

Earlier this year I read Jo Walton’s collection of essays What Makes This Book So Great, which is a collection of essays from over a decade ago mostly about books she re-read and discussed on the Tor blog. In it she covers all of the books published up to that time in two series. One of them I’ve read before, Lois McMaster Bujold‘s Miles Vorkosigan stories. The other was Steven Brust’s Draegarian novels, which I haven’t. I enjoyed her writing about them that I decided to start reading them myself. (I bought a used mass market paperback on eBay because I dislike the trade paperback format, but that’s another story.)

I’ve never been a big fantasy fan. I could have jumped onto this series fairly early, as I blasted my way through most of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy in 1986, but these were pre-Internet days, and it was unlikely I was going to get into a series through other than word-of-mouth. Brust was a fixture in midwest conventions when I lived there and attended them, and I remember seeing Five Hundred Years After on dealer’s room tables at the time, but I didn’t start reading them then. These days I still gravitate mostly to science fiction, but I read the occasional fantasy novel, and after reading Jhereg, the first book in the series, I’m looking forward to continuing, as one of its prominent features is something I really enjoy, and which I want to discuss here: The world building.

I hope to keep this spoiler free, as there are some nice twists in the story for those who haven’t read it.

At 239 pages, Jhereg is comically short by the standards of today’s fantasy series. Even in the early 80s it was on the short side, but not ridiculously so. However, it packs a huge amount of world building into that span, while still having space for an engaging story with a couple of nice twists. It’s quite an accomplishment for a first novel, especially the first of a series which has been running for nearly 40 years. I understand the series moves backwards and forwards in time from here, and I’ll be interesting to see how much consistency the series exhibits.

The lead character is Vlad Taltos, a human on the world of Draegara, who hails from the East, but lives in an empire of Draegarans, who are humanoids who live for centuries or even millennia. There are seventeen houses in the empire, each associated with an animal on the world, and the book makes clear that membership in a house strongly governs the lives and behavior and alliances of its individual members. Vlad is a member of House Jhereg, who are assassins, and by some considered the lowest of the houses. Vlad is in business as an assassin, and apparently a good one.

Draegara has magic, of at least two forms: Sorcery, which appears to be an exertion of will, and witchcraft, which are more ritualistic and time consuming. Vlad has some familiarity with both, the the book opens with him performing a ritual to obtain a Jhereg dragon egg, which grows to become his familiar, Loiosh. The world also features telepathy and teleportation, as well as resurrection from death, and methods to thwart such resurrection. The clever, powerful, and resourceful all take measures to deal with these various powers, and while one could not argue that Brust builds an airtight balance of forces, he does a good enough job in the scope and length of this novel that it’s not needed.

(Thanks to Clarke’s Third Law, one could imagine that this series is science fiction with a fantasy skin, but I prefer to take stories like this at face value unless given reason not to.)

Vlad is essentially a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. He’s constantly surrounded by people who are better than him at any one sill, but his edge is in fitting all of the pieces together. He also has an extensive backstory, having inherited his membership in the Jhereg from his father. He is married to another Jhereg, and is head of security for Morrolan, a powerful member of House Dragon. He’s friends with several other powerful people associated with Morrolan, and he runs his own business with his own staff and contacts. It’s unclear how old he is, but probably late 20s or 30s in this story.

Draegara itself has an extensive backstory, with periods of war, an interregnum, and characters who have lived through it all. And I’m sure there’s plenty we don’t see, since there are whole novels later in the series which take place centuries in the past.

Weaving all of these pieces together without seeming like two hundred pages of exposition is no mean feat. To be sure, Vlad spends a lot of time talking, gathering information, and even learning a few things he didn’t already know. But it all works. I think because Brust is careful not to go in too many directions at once. For example, only three houses – Jhereg, Dragon, and Dzur – figure significantly in the story, and mainly because of the characters’ connections to them.

Oh yes, the story: Vlad is hired by a high member of the Jhereg named The Demon to find a man named Mellar who has stolen a large amount of money from the House. This is embarrassing for the House, but moreover it could signal the others could and should try the same thing if it gets out. So The Demon wants to kill Mellar quickly and permanently, and recover the money, so that even if it does get out, the risks will be clear. Unfortunately, once Vlad finds Mellar, actually killing him proves to have huge and unexpected challenges.

So the story is partly a mystery about Mellar, and partly a puzzle as to how to kill him – or, more precisely, how Vlad can fulfill his contract, do right by his house, and overcome the challenge that killing Mellar presents. (I was pretty happy to figure out the mystery about ten pages before Vlad did. I sort of figured out the puzzle, but my solution probably wouldn’t have worked – or at least, it just would have shifted the steep cost to other parties.) The story is also pretty clearly a set-up of Vlad’s relationships and loyalties, as well as laying the ground rules for how some of the characters and structures in Draegara work. I expect these will be developed and play out in later novels.

All in all, Jhereg is a remarkable piece of work. It even doesn’t feel very dated – for example, several of the major characters are women, including one of the most powerful ones, even though it’s a book with a male protagonist written by a male author. In some ways it’s what I’d wanted George R. R. Martin’s A Song if Ice and Fire (a.k.a. Game of Thrones) to be, with more action, more character, less wordiness, and more of a sense of wonder. Definitely recommended if any of these elements appeal to you, and I hope the series only gets better from here.

ETA: I’ve been reviewing the books in the series in chunks, so if you’d like you can read my review of the rest of the first arc of the series.