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.


Picture of the author on his fifty-fifth birthday

A ‘double-digit birthday’, as a friend of mine called it in his birthday wishes today. Also I guess once upon a time a number often associated with retirement, or at least with being old, as it seemed like AARP memberships once really started being pushed at age 55. (I’ve been received mail from them for several years.) In fact I’m still kickin’ at my job, and planning to stay until at least the modern retirement age of 65. Then we’ll see.

Martin Luther King Jr. day was yesterday, so Debbi took it off and we took the dog to Byxbee Park for a morning hike, and then took down our outdoor Christmas lights. Then we went to Sundance the Steakhouse for dinner, which is where I like to go every year.

Today I slept in, and then spent the morning playing Outer Wilds on our Nintendo Switch. This is very much my sort of game, going around collecting information to solve a mystery, and the story seems very rich. I just scratched the surface in the little time I played. I have a feeling I can look forward to crashing into things quite a bit, though. The game controls on the Switch are pretty awkward, and it would be nice if they had a Mac version, but oh well.

Then I met my friend Chad for lunch at the Park Station Hashery, before making a trip to Recycle Bookstore. (I didn’t find anything today.) I went for a walk to close my exercise goal and almost catch up on this week’s podcasts, and then I watched an author event with John Scalzi sponsored by my local library before we made dinner.

All my birthdays are pretty low key these days. I don’t think we’ve really “done anything” for them since going to Disneyland in 2020. But that’s fine. Once you’ve had enough birthdays you appreciate the quiet ones. We’ll see if I feel similarly in another 20 or 30 years.

Picture of a smiling black doggo
Domino enjoyed his hike!

Marvel Snap

Marvel Snap is on online “collectible” “card” game which was publicly released in late 2022. I signed up for it – maybe even a little before that when it was still in beta, I don’t remember – and played it for a month or two in the fall of 2022 because I was looking for a new casual game on iOS. But after a little while I got bored with it and stopped playing.

Then this past September I was feeling pretty unhappy with last year’s Magic the Gathering sets (basically, I’ve hated the limited formats for most of them, and especially loathed Wilds of Eldraine, the set which was out at the time) and decided to give it another try, and I’ve been playing it regularly since.

As a casual and simple game it has a surprising amount of depth. I don’t really care about the character skins that the cards have, so it’s the gameplay which has held my attention. Enough that I decided to write an entry about it.


The game is a “collectible” “card” game in that the game pieces are virtual cards, and you acquire them by consistent play. You can’t trade with other players, and for the most part you have little control over how you acquire cards. The game has a “collection level” system which you move up as you play, and over the first 500 levels you acquire every card in the first two “pools” of cards. Thereafter you gradually acquire cards from the later pools (3, 4 and 5). Effectively, this means everyone gets a base set of cards after a couple of months of play, and then players randomly acquire new cards to unlock new deck archetypes.

There are a couple other ways to acquire cards: Certain cards become randomly available for purchase through certain means in the store, and every “season” (month) a new “pass” is released with a new card which you can purchase. I’ve been buying the season pass for the last few months at $10 each and have been pretty happy with it.

Each card had a ladder of rarities which you can increase as you get “boosters” and credits. These rarities just make the card look different, which has no in-game value, but increasing the rarity moves you up the collection level track. You get boosters by playing, and you get credits by achieving daily and mastery pass goals, and you also get boosters and credits by moving up the level track.

So it’s a pretty clever gamified system, and for me the motivation is to acquire new cards to unlock new decks and experience, so I keep playing. A pretty nifty feedback system. I’m sure there are people who spend real money to unlock


A game consists of 3 zones, and each player may have up to 4 cards in each zone. The player with the most power in each zone at the end of the game wins that zone, and you have to win 2 of the 3 zones to win the game. (If you tie for numbers of zones won, then the player with the highest total power wins.)

The game lasts 6 turns, and each turn a player gets an amount of energy equal to the turn number, losing any unspent energy each turn. Each card has an energy cost, a power number, and may have special abilities.

Each player constructs a deck of 12 unique cards from the cards they own. They start the game with 3 cards, and draw 1 card each turn. And each turn they can play as many cards they have in hand as they have energy.

One thing that took me a while to realize is that this means you’ll draw 9 of the 12 cards in your deck during the game, so well-constructed decks have a fairly consistent experience, varying mainly in the order they draw cards in, and which 3 cards they don’t draw.

I’ve also noticed that some players don’t seem to think about having to win only 2 of the 3 zones and work to win all 3 of them, whereas I’m happy to punt on a zone in order to win the other 2.

The game keeps things simple by limiting your options to basically only which cards you play. If a card has an effect which could choose from among several different things – for example, discard a card, destroy a card, affect a card in some other way – the game makes the choice randomly. There are a few combos which can result in a number of effects happening in sequence, and when this happens the game will “fast forward” to the end of the sequence. I don’t think the game has any truly infinite combos, which must be an interesting design tightrope to walk.

Oh, one more thing: Each zone has a randomly-chosen effect which are revealed over the course of the first 3 turns, from left to right. There are a lot of zone effects, so every game is a little different, and some of them are very different. Some decks can be completely hosed by a particular set of zones, while others do well with them. Those are unusual, though: Most decks are competitive with most zones, but the games play out differently. And it feels great to win a game with a set of zones that your deck handles poorly.

I haven’t yet figured the optimal strategy for playing cards while some zones are still unknown. Early on I would play in the leftmost zone – revealed on turn 1 – with my first card, but these days I tend to play in the rightmost zone unless a revealed zone makes it clear I should play something there. Sometimes this hoses me, other times it benefits me, but on balance it’s felt like the right thing. I imagine whole articles have been written about how to do this.

Other Stuff

Each season has a separate ranking track based on “cubes”, which are acquired by winning games, and lost by losing games. Each game starts at 1 cube, and either player can “snap” at any time to double the number of cubes won, up to a maximum of 8. These get you some additional rewards, but mean you have to be snapping cleverly to win more cubes than you lose. This is frankly one of the less exciting parts of the game for me.

I’m not really sure how matchmaking works in Marvel Snap. I suspect they try to match you up roughly based on your collection level and maybe the season rank. I find I don’t often match up against decks which are clearly better than mine, but I also find that I tend to get up to 85 cubes and then stall out (the max reward is at 100 cubes). This probably means I’m missing out on some marginal value in my snapping, but I’ve seen people say they get up to max cubes in just a few days, so maybe not.

But the fact that I can keep moving up in collection level matters a lot more to me than getting stalled on cubes.

(It seems like optimally people would retreat when clearly behind with little chance of catching up and snap when clearly ahead with little evident chance of losing, and so most games would end up at 1-2 cubes. and advancement would be slow. In practice, this doesn’t happen, which is interesting. I often win 8-cube games where I felt ahead for a long time, and I sometimes lose 8-cube games because my opponent had stuff I hadn’t imagined which caught them up. I suspect there are built-in factors which stoke the variance, but also that there are aspects of this part of the game I haven’t figured out yet. I also suspect that some players just snap early because they like to play for higher stakes – the equivalent of a live straddle in poker – and that many people like to play out the game because you get more boosters for longer games. I dunno.)

As I said, there are also various challenges – daily ones for everyone, and extra ones for people with the season pass – which you can accomplish to get more credits. These are usually pretty easy to achieve – I’m not sure I’ve ever not achieved one with a few games of play per day.


Deck building is a pretty interesting part of the game. There are of course loads of web sites out there with decks you can build – if you have those cards. If you don’t, then you often look for a deck where you have 8-10 of the cards, and then figure out what to fill in around them. The new card with each season pass is fun because you can try to build some new decks around them.

I’m going to present a few of my decks without going into them in great depths; you can easily go online to see what the cards do if you care.

When I started playing I decided what I wanted to do was maximize the number of cards I could play, so I built a deck called “Micronauts” which looked like this:

Marvel Snap Micronauts deck

These are all tier 1 and 2 cards, and it performed really well for me. Basically these cards are all good-rate cards which put a lot of power on the board for their cost, and I could almost always play all of them by the end of the game. So if you’re new to the game, consider going this one a try. I’ve evolved the deck over time – primarily based around Squirrel Girl, Ka-Zar (which gives all 1-cost cards +1 power) and Jessica Jones – and it’s still pretty competitive. I bring it out whenever there’s a daily challenge where it wants me to win a zone with 4 cards.

I think my favorite deck came with the season pass for Ms. Marvel a few months ago. She is already an efficient card (5 power for 4 energy), but she gives adjacent cones 5 power if the cards in each zone have different costs. I looked at a few decks out there and then came up with this one:

Marvel Snap Ms. Marvel deck

I’m not sure I’ve actually changed this deck since I built it, and it wins a lot. Besides the basic synergies in the deck, I stumbled into a couple of cards – Armor and Cosmo – which absolutely hose a few popular decks in the metagame. There are few warmer feelings than dropping Armor – which prevents all cards in a zone from being destroyed – in a zone where a deck which wants to destroy its own cards has already played 2 or 3 cards.

This deck strongly prefers to play cards in the middle zone. I feel it could use a little more tuning, and perhaps someday I’ll acquire a new card which is an obvious replacement for one of the ones in it today.

My current favorite deck is this High Evolutionary deck. The gimmick of the High Evolutionary is he gives certain cards special abilities, but the nature of those abilities is that they give you a bonus for not using all your energy, and they give you a bonus if you decrease the power of your opponent’s cards.

Marvel Snap High Evolutionary deck

I don’t own a few cards commonly played in this deck, but I’m very happy with the cards I put in instead. Psylocke grants extra energy which can either ramp out cards or assist in the “not use all energy” bonuses. Scorpion and Hazmat both decrease power of opponents’ cards, making Abomination cheaper. Magik adds a 7th turn to the game, so you can play more stuff. And Iron Lad gets the ability of the top card in your deck, in addition to being very efficient, and synergies with most of the deck. It’s been a very consistent deck for me over the last week.

I have several other decks I play, but those have been my go-to decks so far.

In Conclusion

So I’ve been playing Marvel Snap almost every day for the last 4+ months, and frankly I’m kind of surprised it’s held my attention for this long. A single game takes just a few minutes, so I’m not investing a huge amount of time in it, and overall I’ve been winning at a pretty good clip, which always feels good.

So if you enjoy turn-based card strategy games like this, and either enjoy to can tolerate the play-to-acquire gamified system, then Marvel Snap may be for you. I don’t know if I’ll still be playing it at the end of the year, but if Magic sets continue to have sucky limited environments, then I just might.

Goodbye New Yorker, Again

I have an on-again, off-again relationship with The New Yorker, and two years after I resubscribed to it, I’m letting it lapse again. My last issue is the January 1 & 8 one, with this cover by Bianca Bagnarelli:

Cover to the Jan 1 & 8, 2024 edition of The New Yorker.

As always, it gets harder to keep up with a weekly periodical over time, especially one as in-depth as The New Yorker. I feel like the magazine spends more time these days covering celebrities and world events and less time talking about the quirkier, more obscure areas of the nation and the world. I get plenty of exposure to Donald Trump, Taylor Swift and the war in Ukraine from other sources.

But this issue – which I haven’t quite finished – does go out on a high note with an article on Hollywood screenwriter and script doctor Scott Frank.

Of course, I have plenty of other things to read: A large to-read stack of books in the house, my weekly haul of comic books (and a moderate stack of graphic novels I haven’t cracked), and plenty of material on-line. That’s what magazines and newspapers have to compete with in the Internet era.

If the magazine continues, I’ll probably re-up in another 5 or 10 years, and maybe it will have evolved again. Time will tell.