Spellbinding Storytelling Patterns: Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series

I’ve just finished reading Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos books to date.

They’re great.

I think Brust must be the best person at keeping a secret in the world. There are revelations late in the series that it’s quite clear, on re-reading, that he knew about and was hinting at all the time.

It’s possible to have quite an interesting argument about whether the Dragaeran books—which include the Paarfi romances and Brokedown Palace as well as the Vlad books, are fantasy or science fiction.

Vlad Taltos is an Eastern assassin living in the Dragaeran Empire. He’s a member of House Jhereg. The Houses are the way that Dragaerans divide themselves. Each House contains the genes of their titular animal, as well as sharing some behavioural traits with them. Teckla, for instance, are mice, and jhereg are flying reptile rodents. Members of House Teckla are peasants, and of House Jhereg criminals. Dragaerans live, normally, about two to three thousand years. There are also humans living among them, Easterners, who are just like us, only more psychic, and live the same kind of length of time we do. Some of them call the Dragaerans “elfs”. They do sorcery, while humans do magic. But it’s all more complicated than that. Godhood is a state to which one can aspire, there are at least two races of aliens, one of which explicitly meddled with the genes of humans and Dragaerans and brought them to Dragaera from another world.

There are ways in which they feel like fantasy. There are magic soul-eating swords! Then there are ways in which they feel like SF. There’s the grey box into which Vlad tells his stories. Vlad’s wisecracking voice is similar to Corwin of Amber. The world is clearly magical, but the main thing most people do with their link to the Orb is use it to check the time. They teleport the way we fly. Adrilankha is in many ways a very modern city. It remains interestingly arguable.

I think it’s SF, because I think everything will be explained in the end. But that end is still a long way away.

With any long series, of course you can’t wait for more. Narrative drive is a powerful force. You want to know what happens next. But this series is interestingly peculiar, especially for fantasy, in that Brust isn’t writing it in order. There is an internal chronological order, but that’s not the way he’s writing it at all.

We are told there will eventually be nineteen books, one for each House of the Cycle and two extras. So far there are eleven books, representing ten of the seventeen Houses and one of the extras, Taltos. In each of the books named for Houses, Vlad behaves like one of the members of the named house, and there’s often a significant member of the house present as well. So in Orca for instance we see Vlad investigating a financial scam, and in Dragon he goes to war.

The first book, Jhereg, was published in 1983. The latest, Jhegaala, came out last month. Brust has already been writing this series for twenty-five years, and he’s just over half way through.

It’s already at a length that takes me a week to re-read.

Reading all eleven books, in publication order, takes me from the very familiar through the less familiar to the unread. It also takes me from a cheerful fast paced adventure of a wisecracking assassin to a difficult story of exile and torture.

The series starts in the middle. In Jhereg, Vlad is a happily married successful middle-tier assassin, who takes a contract that could plunge the world into a war. He has friends in high places—Morrolan owns a floating castle, Aliera is the daughter of a goddess and Sethra Lavode is the Enchantress of Dzur Mountain. In addition he has his wife, Cawti, his jhereg familiar, Loiosh, whose banter is one of the unforgettable things about the books, and his Jhereg organization. Jhereg is the perfect introduction to the world, the characters and the series. But if fantasy is all about saving the world, it isn’t much like fantasy. This is small scale and contained and funny and charming. It’s full of references to things that happened earlier, but they’re very much not at all a problem.

It’s interesting that Brust chose to follow it with Yendi (1984), which is set a couple of years earlier when Vlad is brasher and less successful, and which contains the story of how Vlad met and fell in love with Cawti. When I first read it, about thirty seconds after finishing Jhereg, as I had that ugly British omnibus, I was disappointed by that. Books where people fall in love are commonplace, books where people are happily married without comment all the way through are rare, though in life it’s the other way around. But anyway. Yendi is the story of another Jhereg trying to muscle in on Vlad’s territory, which turns out to be part of a bigger plot. We see a younger Vlad and a younger Loiosh and friends he knows less well.

Then came Teckla—which was three years later in 1987, or about another thirty seconds later for me, which caused great whiplash. Teckla is set immediately after Jhereg. In it, Vlad becomes involved with some easterners planning Marxist revolution, because Cawti has become involved with them. Everything goes wrong. He spends most of the book hiding, like a Teckla. Teckla has a lovely conceit. It starts with a laundry list, and every chapter heading is a part of that list, and you learn how it was that, for instance, the bloodstain got onto the trousers, or the dust on their knees.

And then, just when you want to know if Vlad and Cawti will ever make it up, and what’s going to happen with the rebellion, we get Taltos (1988), set earlier than anything except (thank you Avram!) the prolog to Jhereg. In Taltos, Vlad first meets Morrolan, Aliera and Sethra. And it’s written in an interestingly experimental way. Each chapter begins with a portion in italics of Vlad doing a spell. It then gets on with a little of the ongoing plot. It goes back to Vlad’s childhood and the backstory of how he got to be where he is in that book, and then it continues with the ongoing plot. When the ongoing plot reaches the point where he does the spell that has been running through the whole book, the book is over.

Looking at the structure of Taltos made me realise that reading the books chronologically (as I have done several times) is a mistake. Brust is mixing up the order of events in the whole series for the same reasons he does here, and for the same reasons a fine chef serves a meal in a particular order. I’m not sure why Brust has made these choices, but I trust that he has reasons for it.

Next came Phoenix (1990) which is like the second half of Teckla, except that at the end of the book Vlad is exiled. Throughout it, Vlad is considering the ethics of being an assassin. We’re a long way from the cheerful acceptance of murder of the earlier books.

Athyra (1993) isn’t from Vlad’s point of view. This was a bold choice, and some people hated it. It’s third person, from the point of view of a Teckla peasant boy, and we see Vlad, in exile, from outside. It’s an interesting variation in the series. Between Phoenix and Athyra, Vlad has lost a finger.

Orca (1996) was the first book I had to wait for, and I waited very impariently, especially for the six weeks the book took to get to me by very slow boat while everyone else was talking about it. Orca alternates Vlad’s point of view with that of Kiera the thief. It’s set next in the ongoing chronology, and it contains staggering revelations that cause re-evaluation of everything so far, and which were set up from early in Jhereg.

Dragon (1998—I can’t believe it’s been ten years!) is set between Taltos and Yendi, except for the frame which is set just after Yendi, making chronological re-reads impossible. Dragon also has the interesting chapter structure of Taltos, except it isn’t a spell, it’s a battlefield.

And then, it’s as if Brust suddenly thought “Hang on, this is a fantasy series, aren’t we supposed to be saving the world amid revelations of that the world is really like?” and wrote Issola, (2001) in which many questions are answered, including some nobody had thought to ask, and the main plot moves on a lot, except that this isn’t that kind of series and there isn’t really a main plot in that way.

Dzur (2006) takes place immediately afterwards. And it has that chapter structure again, or almost, and this time it’s a meal. I think Dzur may be my favourite, even though it makes me hungry reading it. There are revelations revealed that have been set up since the first page of Jhereg, and the meal is in Valabar’s a restaurant that’s been mentioned over and over but never seen before. (Brust’s brilliant at this kind of detail. For instance, there’s a street in Adrilankha called Undauntra. In Athyra, Vlad quotes a line from a play in which Undauntra is a character. In Issola, it’s mentioned that Undauntra was a historical general. This is one tiny thing, and the books are full of them.)

Which brings me to Jhegaala, which I shouldn’t really talk about because I only finished reading it for the first time about half an hour before I started this review. It’s set just after Phoenix. It may or may not explain how Vlad lost his finger. It’s kind of traumatic. It wouldn’t be a good place to start. It has chapter start quotations from a play I’d love to see. Alone of all the series so far, it’s set in the East.

It isn’t narrative tension and the desire to know what happens that makes me impatient for MORE of these, NOW PLEASE. In many of them, I already sort of knew what happened before I read them, though not the details. It’s not even a desire for more details about the world and the explanation of how it’s all SF, though I’d be happy with as much more of that as I can get. Brust’s an amazing storyteller. You can know Vlad will survive, and yet there’s no loss of tension. It isn’t Vlad and Loiosh bantering, though that’s always a joy. It’s that reading all eleven books so far, I can sort of see a pattern that it’s making to read them in the order they’re in. I can see it half-squinting sideways, and I want to see all of it.


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