on 30 March 2011
This is the 13th novel in Brust's Vlad Taltos sequence, which shares a world with "The Khaavren Romances" series. The first thing to say is that if you are not familiar with the series, this is probably a bad place to start - Jhereg or Taltos are probably a better starting point. If you're already a fan, however, you will want to know that this is a good, if unusual, Vlad novel.
Vlad Taltos makes his home in the Dragaeran Empire. The Dragaerans refer to themselves as "humans", and to Vlad's people as "Easterners", whereas in fact Easterners are what we think of as human, and Dragaerans are taller, extremely long lived, divided into Great Houses named after various animals, and take some physical and behavioural influence from those animals. A strong theme in the series is that Dragaerans are very much influenced by the heritage of their houses: Dragons are reckless and often serve as soldiers, Orca are avaricious and take to trade, Phoenix are solitary, and so on. When Vlad first appeared in the series, he had bought his way into membership of House Jhereg, who were mob-style criminals. He raised the money by working as an assassin, which fed his preference for hurting Dragaerans in retaliation for their oppression of Easterners. Vlad is no one-note character, however, and over a long sequence of books he was often confronted by the paradoxes of his position, with him eventually fleeing with a price on his head, and continuing into stranger climes.
The main delight of Vlad books is the wry, idiosyncratic narration by Vlad himself, told with brevity and wit. The other sequence set in Dragaera, The Khaavren Romances, took the opposite approach, being written in the long and stylised manner of Dumas. These dealt with events some centuries before Vlad's time, and revealed some background to the major world-changing events that Vlad has sometimes been on the fringes of.
The first section of Tiassa is set back when Vlad was a member of the Jhereg in good standing, and features him in a scam very much in the style of the early books. This is classic Vlad, and is a welcome return to the younger carefree gangster. The second section then throws a twist right at anyone who had settled in for a standard Vlad book: It is set during his period of exile, Vlad barely appears in person, and our narrators include minor characters from both this series and the Khaavren books. However, the third section tops everything, jumping straight into the style of the Khaavren books, and showing us Khaavren himself during the up-to-date timeline of the Vlad books, as he investigates murky goings-on surrounding Vlad. In between, there are some interludes with fascinating tidbits about the character of Devera and her heritage.
The link between all this is a small silver figurine of a Tiassa, which causes far more trouble than it really ought, entwining the disparate sections together in a sequence that fans of Brust will delight in. However, if you're not up-to-date with the series, this will probably totally bemuse you, and I can't honestly recommend it to new readers. Overall, this is a real return to form, and there's a sense that Brust is starting to move the series towards whatever conclusion he has planned.
This is the 13th novel directly in the Vlad Taltos series and when you include the Khaavren Romances and the short stories set in Dragaera there are over 20 works to date. I have been reading them since Jhereg came out in 1983 and still find them amazing stories to read. In fact Jhereg is the first book that I can recall purchasing for myself, and attribute it and Brust's writings for much of my love and enjoyment of reading. If you are not familiar with Vlad Taltos and his familiar Loiosh you are missing out on some great fun, a little bit of magic, weapons, weapons and more weapons, and an assassin with a wicked sense of humor and often a big heart. This book is written in three sections that spread across the most of the other novels and links it to characters from The Khaavren Romances. Every now and then a Vlad novel comes out that is so good, I end up going back and rereading the whole series, either in the order they were published or the Chronological order. This is one such book.
The stories in this volume focuses around a an ornate silver Tissa, "It is described as a tiny sculpture of a tiassa, all of silver, with sapphires for eyes." And also "-about the size of my palm, all of silver, except for the eyes, which appeared to be very tiny sapphires. The wings were thin, and filled with a multitude of tiny holes so the light shone through, and there were whiskers around the mouth." Yes it is a beautiful piece of artwork, it was crafted by the goddess Mafenyi and stolen by Devera, and from time to time Devera passes it on to someone who needs it for a specific purpose. It features in this story and in its history Vlad appears to be the only person who has possessed it twice. Other than Devera but she currently dances in and out of time, playing with this and that as the mood takes her.
The Second section takes place many years later. Vlad is on the run from the Jhereg. This story follows many characters but Vad is not directly involved. The Countess of Whitecress, wife to Khaavren and mother to the Viscount, and Cawti - Vlad's ex-wife and a certain hair to the throne. Again many things are not as they appear but the resolution and it's after effects are very surprising.
The third section is written by Paarfi within the story and told as a popular fiction. It follows Khaavren as both the Captain of the Phoenix Guard and leader of the Special Tasks Group. This story begins with Vlad being found nearly dead floating in the river and Khaavren must find out why, and why Vlad lied about how and where he sustained his injuries.
All in all it was a great story that filled in some pieces, tied together some different stories and characters and as always left us wanting more. Thankfully Hawk is due out soon.
on 26 June 2012
I love the Vlad Taltos series but have really struggled to like the "romances" set in the same world in an earlier time period - and written - fatally - in the style of Dumas or Sabatini. This is a a very wordy style - it's supposed to be funny but I find it wearingly repetitive and prolix. Even the clever characters come across as thick because it takes them pages to say things like: "I have come to explain." "How, explain?" "Impart to you that which you need to know", "How, need to know? " and so on and on. This is nothing like as much fun to read as the stories written in Vlad's voice - wisecracking, modern and alive - reminiscent of classic Roger Zelazny. So now this syle intrudes into the Vlad time period in Tiassa - which is really three short stories - none of which represent Brust at his best. The first one is thin and also depends on a figure from the Romances behaving totally out of character; in addition, the emotional heart of the plot, usually a Brust strength - is simply omitted. In the middle one, the whole thing concerns minor characters - women from the background of Vlad's life - and here again they are not very interestingly drawn in the main and the plot is two-dimensional. The third one, to my dismay is in this "high" Romance style. In between, as a reviewer above says, we do find out some interesting things about the gods and their plans - that is really the only reason for reading this. But it is not a proper novel and none of the parts really hang together. Compare it to the superb plotting e.g. of Orca - and it's pretty disappointing. Brust completists - including me - will obviously read Tiassa and get something out of it, but new readers should start elsewhere. Also try his Broke-down Palace - the first one I read - a small masterpiece.
In case you care, I am usually pretty good at following complex, tangled-up narratives. But Steven Brust's latest Vlad Taltos fantasy, "Tiassa" had me scrambling back to the book's beginning multiple times. It has some deeply fascinating moments, solid action and some deliciously warped humor, but the narrative often feels like we're lost in a maze.
Several years in the past, Vlad became involved in a peculiar plot that involved spell-marked coins, a mysterious highwayman known as the Blue Fox, and a silver tiassa with sapphire eyes. And in the present, a reported threat of a Jenoine invasion causes the Empire to desperately seek the tiassa, believing that the gods-forged "device" can save them.
At first it seems to be in Vlad's possession -- and he's on the lam from the Jhereg, and nearly unfindable. But Cawti soon discovers that the entire threat is a devious plan of the Jhereg to kill her estranged husband. And soon Khaavren is hot on Vlad's trail...
The biggest problem with "Tiassa" is simple: it's all over the place. The narrative flips from first to third-person, the settings jump around, and even the time period shifts unexpectedly. So it's pretty easy to get completely lost just by something as simple as "When are we? Who is in the room? What's going on?"
Brust's style even changes from one part to another -- at first we're treated to Vlad Taltos' snarky lean style, but later there are chunks of narrative that are more old-timey and serious. And there are some that have little to do with the overall story at all. It's not BAD, but it's often confusing -- it's like a string of intertwined short stories got squished together into a single story.
However, those styles are also the saving grace of this book -- Brust has the rare knack for evoking a complex, intricate world, with all sorts of weird characters and subtle plots. And while the plot takes a few reads to fully understand, it's complex and full of weird twists and odd magic, as well as some answers to long-standing questions. That is what makes it a worthwhile addition to the series.
But when you pick up a Vlad Taltos book, you sort of expect... Vlad Taltos. He makes some cameos in this book, and much of the plot revolves around him but most of the time we're following Cawti, Khaavren or one of the supporting characters. They're all vibrant, engaging characters, but the book feels somehow hollow from the lack of Vlad's snarky wit and the absence of Loiosh.
"Tiassa" is a confusing muddle of a story with a backbone of intriguing plot -- and only Steven Brust's elaborate worldbuilding and strong writing keep it from being totally befuddling.