Aug 21 2008 1:08pm

Judging a book by the cover: Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series

Literally the only thing ever taught to me by my mother was “never judge a book by its cover.” (I was twenty-five before I figured out it could have a metaphorical application to things other than books.)

Nevertheless, Steven Brust’s Brokedown Palace was the first Brust I ever read. I read it because people recommended it online. It’s good, but strange, and not a good place to start. People weren’t recommending it particularly. What they were recommending over and over was Brust’s Vlad Taltos series—the books that start, in publication order, with Jhereg or, in chronological order, with Taltos. People whose taste I trusted were telling me I’d love these books. 

But what you’ll see if you click on those links are the beautiful Ace covers. I was in Britain. Time after time I went into the bookshop and I looked at the Pan cover depicted to the right. Or, for Taltos, an even worse cover, which Brust himself has described as “the Hitler Youth Vlad” and a friend of mine called “proactively hideous.” Hardened SF professionals wince when they see it. This cover is so awful that Google Image Search claims to know nothing of it. Probably it breaks scanners.

So I kept picking up these books, so highly recommended and saying “These books? Surely not,” and putting them down again. There’s a Roger Zelazny quote on the back. Not even that persuaded me.

Eventually, after reading Brokedown Palace and The Phoenix Guards and The Sun, the Moon and the Stars I gave in and bought the first four Vlad books, despite the covers. And of course I loved them. I’ve read them often since. They have a great first person smartass voice, they have plot complexity, they have a world with the look and feel of fantasy but the solidity of science fiction. They have great characters.

I’m just beginning another complete re-read, because I have my copy of the new one, Jhegaala. Normally, when I re-read them I re-read Emmet’s beautiful American copies. Last night when I finished my book and wanted to start Jhereg he was working in his study and I didn’t want to disturb him. So I went to my own shelves and picked up my own horrible edition. I wanted to read it. Really I did. Even so...

There are eleven Vlad books now. I'm going to be writing about them as I re-read them. Only the first four (in two volumes) have ever been published in the UK. It might not be to do with the covers. But then again, I do wonder whether it might.

1. Flippanter
Scalzi has mentioned "first person smartass" before and it seems to be something that many people enjoy, or pick out as something that they enjoy, about genre books generally. Is there a Patient Zero for the trend?
Katrina Templeton
2. katster
Is this the cover in question? (Sorry it's so small...)

3. joerg
They really look...
I prefer the
german cover, which is not often the case
Mary Robinette Kowal
4. MaryRobinette
To prove your point, the Ace covers were what caused me to pick Jhereg up in the first place. It was one of those happy things where the interior matched the exterior. I loved the series.
Madeline Ferwerda
5. MadelineF
Jhegaala was excellent, pure classic Vlad. I love watching that guy suffer. Posted a review-ish thing over at Hugo Recommend.

For the "first person smartass" thing, I first saw it in all Zelazny's characters. Then, reading Raymond Chandler's _Farewell My Lovely_ awhile back I noticed that it was eerily similar to _Nine Princes in Amber_... So I'm putting it on Chandler until someone can put it farther back.
6. Anna Lawrence
In re bad covers, nothing is ever - ever! - going to beat out the printing of Joanna Russ's 'Picnic on Paradise' which featured a young woman wearing nothing much but a thong and an armoured sleeve.

Although I've been LibraryThinging my books lately, which brought me face to face with some Marion Zimmer Bradleys I haven't seen in years, and to which I can only say "Eeeeek!"
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
Katster: No, not that. That one's pretty bad, but mine is worse.

It does seem quite likely that everyone who ever picked it up to scan it shuddered and put it down again.
Stefan Raets
8. Stefan
For my next re-read of the Vlad books, I'm planning to read them in chronological order rather than publication order. "Jhegaala" was excellent - very, very dark, but excellent. Brust can do no wrong.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Stefan: I used to alternate chronological and publication order re-reads until _Dragon_.
10. Punning Pundit
@bluejo: What? You didn't want to read a chapter, put it down, read another book, read a bit more of Dragon...
11. Emmet
Archie Goodwin is first-person smartass dating back to 1934; I cannot think of one predating him.
- -
12. heresiarch
In my mid-teens, I figured out who Michael Whelan was, and that I loved his paintings. Looking through his art books, I kept going Hey! I recognize that painting! That one too! Hey! I had unwittingly bought and read nearly every book he'd done the cover for. (Except The Winter and Summer Queens. Picked them up every time I went to Powell's, but I never quite bought them.)

Cover art matters.
David Moles
13. chronodm
Emmet @11: I suspect Chandler and Stout both picked it up from Hammett's Continental Op.
René Walling
14. cybernetic_nomad
Since we're talking about covers, it should be mentioned that most of the Ace covers are by Stephen Hickman. I know the Phoenix cover is by Denis Beauvais
Arachne Jericho
15. arachnejericho
Hmmmm. I'll have to check these out. Amazon keeps recommending Jhegaala to me over and over and over....

Is Jhegaala a good place to start? Or should I go all the way back?

By the way, there's something called To Reign in Hell: A Novel which was written by both Burst and Zelazny. That intrigues me.
Jo Walton
16. bluejo
Arachnejerico: _Jhereg_ is a good place to start, or otherwise _Taltos_. Don't start with _Jhegaala_, which is new, and book ten in publication order and maybe six chronologically.
Andrea Leistra
17. aleistra

Jhegaala is a terrible place to start. Really. Nothing will make sense and you'll have terrible spoilers for earlier books. I'm a strong advocate of publication order (start with Jhereg), but Jo's other suggestion of starting with Taltos wouldn't be terrible either.

To Reign in Hell was also written by Brust. Zelazny had nothing to do with it (though I see he appears to have written an introduction to the Orb edition, which may have confused Amazon.)
Ken Walton
18. carandol
What was the Poul Anderson book you kept in a brown paper cover because the artwork induced nausea?
Jo Walton
19. bluejo
The only thing I can remember having in a brown paper cover is the US 1938 edition of Mary Renault's _Purposes of Love_, which put a cover on it as if it was a nurse romance novel. It's still in a brown paper cover.

I just went and checked the Poul Anderson shelf, and while some of the covers are fairly bad, none of them are outstandingly awful.
Kerry Kuhn
20. Kerry
Jo - I'm in the process of picking up those books and I want to make sure I have them all before I start in on the series. Figuring out publication order is easy - there's a copywrite date in each, but could you give a list of the chronological order, please? Unless you think I'd be better off reading them in pub order the first time through.
Arachne Jericho
21. arachnejericho
@ bluejo, aleistra - Thanks for the info! I'll start at Jhereg.

And yes, Amazon's catalog does tend to get confused by the writer of the introduction versus writer of the main text from time to time.
Jo Walton
22. bluejo
Kerry: I think publication order is probably the way to go.

If you want chronological though I believe it is:

Most of _Dragon_
The framestory of _Dragon_
Avram Grumer
23. avram
Wait, doesn't the opening scene of Jhereg take place before any of the others (so far)?
25. Martinus
Huh... That Pan cover happens to grace the first Vlad book I ever bought. It's what made me a Brust fan. Sorry, but that's the honest truth.
Bruce E. Durocher II
26. bedii
Anna Lawrence: I have a friend who's an award winning writer who had a foreign edition with a cover that was so bad that she's never had a book reprinted in that country. She told me that right after it came out she had her author's copy with her at an event where all the other authors were complaining about their covers. She pulled it out and put it on the table and everyone changed the subject. And I've seen her do it at a social function at her house: it's an amazing conversation killer.

And no, I'm not going to give her name, or the genre, or the title, or the illustrator (to use the term in the broadest sense), or the country the edition was from. Suffice it to say that the artist did a damn fine job drawing a woman considering he'd only read descriptions of one without having ever seen any, and that you can't lay down on the ground like that unless your spine has been severed at about shoulder height and displaced to the left by five inches.
David Goldfarb
28. David_Goldfarb
Should we point out spam probes here, as we do on Making Light?
Torie Atkinson
29. Torie
I usually catch them all, but thanks for the heads up. :)
Steven Torres-Roman
30. torresroman
I don't know if it's "patient zero" of "first-person smartass writing," but the first book I ever read with that style was Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny. I also think that Zelazny was a major influence on Brust.
31. NullNix
I think I've found your dire cover (which, as with the book above, commits the double sin of also changing the title.)

Is this it?
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
32. tnh
NullNix, that's a find. It's truly awful. I can barely stand to look at it.

There's another awful European cover Steve once showed me that features a plump, beefy blond fellow whose eyes are either subtly out of focus, or are looking at two different things. They somehow make you want to look elsewhere. It's uncanny.
Janet Hopkins
34. JanDSedai
Don't forget _Iorich_ and _Tiassa_. Or are we just talking about the paperbacks?

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