“Issola strikes from courtly bow”: Steven Brust’s Issola

Issola would be the absolute worst place to start the Taltos series, because it is chock full of revelation. The first time I read it I could feel my jaw dropping further and further as I read, stunned as things I’d wondered about and engaged in online speculation about were discussed and explained in detail and at length in a way I’d never suspected they would be. Issola contains more conventional fantasy plot and more revelation than all the other volumes up to this point put together. If this were an ordinary series, it would be a climactic book. As it is, it changes the shape of the possibilities of the series. In comments on my first post on these books, Carlos Skullsplitter asked “which will be most important to you at the end: the revelation, the conclusion, or the narration?” The answer to that would have been different before Issola, Issola changes everything. It’s set in what I’ve been calling the main continuity, sometime not long after Orca.

Spoilers start here.

Issola are heron-like birds. We’re told they sit full of grace and stillness and strike lightning fast when they see a fish, then return to stillness. The House of Issola are famous for their courtesy. Issola is framed as a manual on courtesy, and certainly Vlad is polite and considerate in it, and Lady Teldra tells him that he understands courtesy better than he thinks. The significant Issola is Lady Teldra herself, who we have seen previously only in Castle Black as Morrolan’s greeter, saying and doing the right thing on all occasions.

The plot is relatively simple for a Vlad book: Morrolan and Aliera have disappeared, Sethra and Lady Teldra send Vlad to look for them, they’ve been captured by the mysterious Jenoine, Vlad rescues them, is captured, they rescue him, there’s a big battle with the Jenoine in which Verra and other gods fight with our friends, Lady Teldra is killed and becomes part of Godslayer, a Great Weapon made of her soul, Spellbreaker and a powerful morganti dagger. I called this “conventional fantasy plot” as shorthand above. Of all the Vlad books, this is the most like a normal fantasy novel. All of the other books have plots that are moved by comprehensible individuals, and some kind of mystery which Vlad is trying to untangle. Here the mystery is the Jenoine, and what we find out about them from Sethra (who ought to know and has no reason to be lying) near the beginning is all we continue know of their motivation.

There have been hints of the Jenoine before, but here Sethra sits Vlad down at great length and explains the Jenoine, the gods, and the way the world works. With what’s said about “tiny lights” in Dragon, it seems quite clear that humans came to Dragaera from Earth, probably using some kind of Morgaine/Witchworld gate-type science but perhaps in spaceships, met the native Serioli, got entangled with the non-native, powerful Jenoine, and were experimented on (genetically and otherwise) to make them psychic and to make Dragaerans out of them. Sometime after that point the gods (and being a god is a job and a skillset) revolted in some way involving the Great Sea of Chaos and Dzur Mountain, and since then have been trying, mostly successfully, to keep the Jenoine out of Dragaera. Oh, and we also learn a lot about Great Weapons, and that Adron is in some way conscious in the Lesser Sea.

I can never decide whether I like Issola or not. I find it unsettling—so much happens so fast it leaves my head spinning. This sort of thing isn’t often a problem for me when re-reading. It’s one of the reasons I often enjoy re-reading more than reading something for the first time. But with Issola, I keep thinking next time I read it I’ll be able to relax into it, and that never happens.

This is a book with some lovely lines, and some beautiful set-pieces, but what I remember it for is the sensation of standing under a trapdoor and having a load of revelation dropped on my head.

On to The Viscount of Adrilankha.

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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