Saturday, April 17, 2010

Reviews for Friday, April 16th, 2010 - posted Saturday, April 17th, 2010. Shut up, Loish.

Over the past week, I have been re-reading Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos books, through Jhegaala. The most recent book is Iorich, but that's not out in paperback yet, so I haven't read it. Brust is by far one of my favorite authors; someone I would very much like to sit down and have a chat with, probably over dinner. The Taltos novels follow the story of Vladimir Taltos, an assassin in the fantasy world of Dragaera. There are a projected 18 books in the series (one for each house of Dragaera, plus Taltos, which is a book about Vlad, more or less.). Tangential to the series are Brokedown Palace, which is about life in the East and the Khaavren romances, which are a trilogy of "historical" romances, written more or less in the style of Dumas, and describing the historical world of Dragaera around the beginning and just after the beginning of the Interegnum. Very little of that, I expect, makes any sense to anyone who hasn't already read the books, so lets see if I can't clear some of that up.

Dragaera is a strange mix of a fantasy setting with a heavy dose of implied sci fi - it is a different planet, there are strong implications that the planet has been terraformed, and that the dominant inhabitants of the planet were a) settled on the planet by others and b) genetically tampered with. There are 3 prominent sentient species on the planet, Humans (called Easterners, of which Vlad is one), Dragaerans (called Humans by fellow Dragaerans, called Elfs by Vlad's grandfather), and Serioli, who we are told are the original inhabitants of the planet.

The Dragaerans are in 17 Great Houses, each named for a native animal.

Vlad is the principle character in the books, and he is a member of a criminal organization (also one of the Houses) called the Jhereg (named for an indigenous flying reptilian scavenger.) He is, as I said above, an assassin, and also a witch. Loish is his familiar, also a jhereg.

Brust's narrative style, with a few exceptions, is very noir; in many ways, Vlad is closer to Sam Spade than to most literary assassins.

I believe that is sufficient background material.

I have been reading the books in publication order, which is different from chronological order.

Jhereg - this is the first book. We meet Vlad and watch him plan and complete an assassination.  It is not a bad place to start reading the series. The jhereg are flying reptilian scavengers, and the Jhereg are the criminal class in Dragaera.

Yendi - this is the second book, and I think it is also my favorite of the series. The yendi is a snakey chameleon type creature, and the Yendi are known for developing twisty plots which do not appear to be what they appear to be. Yendi takes place before Jhereg, and tells the story of how Vlad met his wife, Cawti. What I like about this book is the twisty plot. I am a huge fan of caper novels, and this is pretty close to that.

Teckla - this book follows Jhereg. The teckla is a small timorous rodent, and the Teckla are the peasants on Drageara, the farmers and the workers. The jhereg feed on teckla, and the Jhereg steal from and cheat and con the Teckla. Many of Brust's fans do not like this particular novel, it has a fair bit of politics in it, and it's emotionally tough to read. I find that the novel grows on you.

Taltos - this is the first book, chronologically, and describes Vlad's trip into the Paths of the Dead. Vlad is a Taltos, in that his last name is Taltos - in Brokedown Palace, we learn that Taltos is also a word for witch, which Vlad also is.

Phoenix - chronologically, this book follows Teckla, and is my least favorite. The plot seems a little cludgy, there's a fair bit of deus ex machina - except not, because the gods do very little to save the characters and a great deal to get them further into trouble - what's the opposite of deus ex machina? Anyway, it's a frustrating novel to read, and it builds on the emotional turmoil of Teckla. The phoenix is an extremely rare flaming bird, and the Phoenix is a very small House (in this series, as far as is currently apparent, a House of one) - currently, the ruling House.

Athyra - the athyra is a largish raptor-type bird - at one point, Vlad and some companions eat one, so it's fairly large - and the Athyra are the magical philosophers in Dragaera. This book is, unlike the rest of the series, not told in first person by Vlad, which is somewhat difficult to appreciate when you begin reading it. This book follows Jhegaala, chronologically.

Orca - the orca is a large whale, and the Orca are the ship building, sailing, merchant class. Vlad shares the narration in this novel about a banking crises and the sort of credit con that should be painfully familiar for the current audience. I think this is my second favorite of the books - I appreciate the plot, and I like the surprises which come throughout the book. This book follows Athyra, both chronologically and in publication order.

Dragon - this book comes both after Taltos and after Yendi - Brust is playing with the chronology. This introduces an element which I find a little distracting. Brust tries very hard to make each of the novels stand alone, without a lot of explanation of back story. In this novel, Vlad makes specific reference to a "golden box" that he is speaking to - some sort of magical tape recorder. Although it doesn't come up directly in later books, Vlad sometimes breaks the fourth wall and wonders if his audience is aware of the back story. It's a little distracting. The dragons on Dragarea are a little different from what we're used to - large reptiles, yes, but with tentacles around their heads. The Dragons are the military types, leading and fighting in wars. Vlad gets dragged into a small war. This is, in this re-read, the funniest of the novels.

Issola - the issola is a crane-type bird, very graceful. The Issola are the graceful embodiment of manners. This book follows Orca, and tells how Vlad inadvertently saves the world. I recall, the first time I read this, that the twist ending was a huge surprise on an emotional level - I hadn't known that I cared so much for the character involved. There's a scene early on that I didn't like involving a bagel. Way too cute.

Dzur - this book follows Issola - indeed, it begins mere hours after the end of Issola, if that much. The dzur is a large catlike creature, and the Dzur are the warriors of Dragaera - the hero types, who charge into situations and fight against suicidal odds. Because it's fun, apparently. This book has a lengthy description of a meal throughout.

Jhegaala - this book comes between Phoenix and Athyra. The jhegaala is an amphibian with a lengthy metamorphosis - the Jhegaala are artists and artisans, but later in life they tend to become art critics. I'm not sure how I feel about this book - Vlad goes East to spend some time with his own kind. I've only read the book once, since it's the newest one (that I own), so I may have to read it again to present a better review.

What I have particularly enjoyed in re-reading the series is watching the growth of the characters, and also watching the changes in Brust's writing ability. Dzur and Jhegaala are much deeper and more complex novels than Jhereg. Brust has become far more comfortable with including philosophy in his books, his humor has grown throughout the series, and he has stopped shying away from writing lavish descriptions of food - seriously, these books will make you hungry for complex food. Well, ok, it makes me hungry for complex food. Finally, Jhegaala was the first Brust novel that I've read since finding Brust's blog, so I caught things in the book which he had referenced in his journal - he requested some discussion of what a particular sort of fabric might be, and then included the information in the book. Looking back through the books, it's almost possible to pinpoint the place where Brust starting asking his fans online what things might be, and he begins to include little Easter eggs - tiny descriptions of things or explanations of things which have clearly been the result of someone saying "what is this thing you keep mentioning?" Authorship in the electronic age!

For more information that anyone really needs about Dragaera and etc, you can go here.