“Frightened teckla hides in grass”: Steven Brust’s Teckla

The first time I read Teckla (1987) I hated it. Hated it. I like it now, but it took quite a lot of time for me to come around to it.

Teckla is set in the same fun fantasy world of Dragaera as the first two books of the series, but unlike the romps that are Jhereg and Yendi it’s a real downer. The animals the House of the Teckla are named after are mice, and the Teckla are the peasants and proletarians of the Empire. The book takes places chronologically immediately after Jhereg and it is about a proletarian uprising among the Teckla and Easterners (humans) of South Adrilankha. It’s about ordinary people getting caught up with the Jhereg and the nasty side of assassins—it’s no fun at all when it’s killing ordinary men and women who are threatening the profits of organized crime. It’s also about the messy end of a relationship. It’s about passing and being proud or ashamed of what you are.

What I hated about it was that it was grim and depressing and realistic in a way that turned the first two volumes inside out. That’s what I now appreciate about it. Teckla provides some necessary grounding, some chiaroscuro to the palette of Dragaera.


Brust really uses his American-Hungarian heritage in these books. The Easterners, Fenarians, have Hungarian names and Hungarian culture, and he also uses Hungarian mythology and ideas about magic and witchcraft. But it’s not only that, it’s also the whole thing of being an immigrant in a wider culture, either getting trapped in a ghetto or getting out and despising those who don’t. Vlad is a third-generation immigrant. His grandfather came from Fenario and lives in the ghetto, his father got out and aped the Dragaerans he lived among, and Vlad is uncomfortably caught between cultures. He knows he can’t really be a Dragaeran, but he has a Jhereg title and there’s the whole question of his soul that came up in Jhereg. He’s uncomfortable with all this, and when Cawti gets involved with the revolutionary group he gets uncomfortable about that. There’s a lot here that demonstrates understanding of what it is to live on the underside of a rich culture and the kind of thing people do about that.

Vlad spends a lot of this book literally hiding, and being frightened and miserable. As Yendi was the beginning of his marriage with Cawti, this is the end. This is a closely observed example of one of the ways a couple can split up—Cawti is more interested in what she’s doing in South Adrilankha than her marriage, and Vlad can’t won’t and doesn’t want to change. She has moved on and left him behind, and what he wants he can’t have—if the Cawti of his imagination was ever real, she’s gone.

The Teckla of the title is probably Paresh, who tells Vlad his lifestory at length. This is one of the most interesting bits of the book, how Paresh, a peasant, became a sorcerer and a revolutionary. Vlad isn’t solving a mystery here, as in the first two books. He tries to deal with a problem, and finds some answers, but the conclusion is at most only a deep breath—the real conclusion is in Phoenix. (If there were any sense to the multiple volumes, Teckla and Phoenix would be bound together.)

None of Vlad’s noble friends from the earlier books appear here. Morrolan tries to contact Vlad once, but we don’t see any of them and they’re barely mentioned. This is in keeping with the general Teckla tone of the book, and the general depressing tone too. It would be livened up with some of Morrolan and Aliera’s sparkling dialogue. There’s not much that sparkles here at all.

The peasants are unhappy, the urban poor are unhappy, they’re getting organized—that’s really unusual for a fantasy world. It could be described as socialist fantasy, and it’s certainly informed by a Marxist worldview—which we learn in Phoenix is the view from the wrong world. That isn’t how things work in Dragaera. (So clever he should watch out he doesn’t cut himself.)

Teckla has a fascinating organizational structure. It’s the usual seventeen chapters, but the book begins with a laundry list — a list of clothes sent to the laundry with instructions about cleaning and mending them, and each chapter is headed with a little bit of that list like “remove bloodstains from cuff,” and in that chapter you see how the cuff got bloodstained, or how the cat-hairs got onto the cloak, and so on. I’ve never seen anything even remotely like that done before or since.

On to Taltos.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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