Thu
Aug 28 2008 8:07pm

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.

20 comments
Sean Eric Fagan
1. Sean Eric Fagan
I don't think they're anything other than fantasy -- there's multiple kinds of magic, after all, not all of which can be explained by high technology.

Dave Duncan's 7th Sword series, however, is science fiction. :)
Mary Robinette Kowal
2. MaryRobinette
Darn it. Now I want to read them all over again.

Though you don't say this, I think he is also the best at understanding what first person narrative is really for. Part of what I love about these books is the way Vlad changes not just because of the events but also by the act of telling the story.
Avram Grumer
3. avram
Have you been wondering about the narration? My theory, ever since Dzur, has been that the first-person narration books aren't all being narrated to the same audience.
David Goldfarb
4. David_Goldfarb
The world of the Dragaeran Empire is a beautiful example of how to fascinate me -- and others! It's a world full of cool stuff, with complicated rules that just barely elude comprehension...but which gives the impression that the author does in fact know what's going on, and that with more data things may become clear. It teases. I could give other examples, but this one is a good one.

SKZB has posted on his blog recently that he's finished the first draft of Iorich. This means that TNH gets to see more soon, but it'll be a while yet for the rest of us.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
Avram: I think that's explicit since _Orca_. Also, Vlad lies, which if someone had told me about it, I'd have thought was awful, but as it is, it takes "unreliable narrator" to new heights.

Sean: Well, we're told that Easterners have been genetically enhanced for psychic powers. That puts psychics and witchcraft into the realm of Campbellian SF at least. We're also told that witchcraft uses symbols to manipulate probability. Sorcery is clearly Clarke's Law magic. I mean yes, they're fantasy, but... they're really quite different from most fantasy.
Patrick Shepherd
6. hyperpat
A nice overview of the entire series to date. I've read them all, pretty much as they were published, and haven't re-read any of them, so this really helped refresh my memory of just what was accomplished in each book and how it added to the overall world picture.

For my money, the best so far has been Teckla. There is an emotional power to this one, some soul searching by Vlad, that the rest of books don't quite reach. Apparently I'm in something of the minority here, as general opinion doesn't seem to like this one as much as I do.

Alternatively I'm in the majority for being somewhat unhappy with the third-person outside look at Vlad in Athyra. Different, and certainly provided a different perspective, but without the internal cynicism and wise-cracking of the first person books, it loses something.

As for whether this set is sf or fantasy, I'd have to place it in the fantasy camp. Although there are some sf elements, and there are possible scientific explanations for most of the oddities of this world, the tone and general atmosphere of this belongs to the fantasy world, so we are not surprised when we see Vlad performing a spell or the presence of soul-destroying swords. Just as I'd have to place Bradley's Darkover series or McCaffrey's Pern set in the sf camp, even though there are clear fantasy elements (fire-breathing flying dragons of that size??), as their tone is one that implies an ordered, scientifically explainable world, whereas the Taltos set invokes feelings of chaos and somewhat arbitrary rules of how the world works. But the line between the two fields is certainly not drawn in hardened steel.
Evan Langlinais
7. Skwid
I nearly think you do a disservice to Mr. Brust, and (perhaps) even to Dragaera, by neglecting to mention the popular histories of Lord Paarfi of Roundwood, as translated by Mr. Brust into the "Khaavren Romances." I say nearly, for I am sure the slight is not in the least intended, but slight I say it is, for the depth of Dragaeren history (if fancifully depicted) is truly revealed therein, as well the flexibility of skill displayed by the aforementioned translation, performed in a style not at all like those works you praise so righteously above.

(Why, yes, I am indeed re-reading Phoenix Guards right now, why do you ask?)
Sean Eric Fagan
8. Dan Blum
Avram: I think that's explicit since _Orca_. Also, Vlad lies, which if someone had told me about it, I'd have thought was awful, but as it is, it takes "unreliable narrator" to new heights.


I think it's actually explicit since Taltos. At least, Taltos and either Jhereg or Yendi contain contradictory accounts of how Vlad came to learn witchcraft and Eastern-style fencing. So he's lying in at least one of them, and is either telling them to two different audiences or is a really forgetful liar. (Or he could just have a bad memory, but these were major life events for him.)
Sean Eric Fagan
9. Dr Hoo
Interesting analysis! I read each as they were published, so the connections between the books and the stylistic differences aren't so clear to me looking back with my hazy memory. I should ask the wife, I guess, since she just read them all fresh at my urging. BTW, if you haven't read it, "Agyar" is easily Brust's best work, in a manner analogous to "The Dragon Never Sleeps" being Glen Cook's best work.
Avram Grumer
10. avram
Jo, have you read any Gene Wolfe? Talk about unreliable narrators....
Stefan Raets
11. Stefan
Somehow I missed the entire bit with Vlad telling his stories into a grey box. Must re-read again.

Also, interesting interview here (http://www.fantasybookspot.com/node/2901). My favorite quote:

Question: I’m going to get a bit silly here. Who would Vlad vote for in the upcoming election in the USA?

Brust: Probably McCain. One is phoney, the other is a crook; naturally Vlad would vote for the crook.
Michael Grosberg
12. Michael_GR
I really love the games that Brust is playing with the reader - all the framing devices, the change in narrators, the twisted chronology - but I think it's just a writer trying to stay fresh and interesting. I'd love it if it turned out there was a pattern, a Grand Plan behind it all - but expecting that just sets one up for disappointment.

I remember religiously watching the X-files, looking for clues, discussing it with friends, trying to see the whole picture, to crack the conspiracy. Then in an interview Chris Carter admitted that they were just making things up as they went along. I was so frustrated! Ronald D. Moore from BSG admitted to pretty much doing the same thing - when they started out on season 1 they had no idea where they were going with it.

Here's the thing with stories - many writers let the story and characters take them to places thay hadn't thought of when they started plotting. Us geeks, we're in love with our continuity, but when you plot everything in advance and you won't let yourself stray from the path, you know what you get? You get The Phantom Menace,that's what.

So now I know better. I've consciously decided to make a mental switch, to forgo the joys of continuity and 5-year (or 30-year) story arcs in return to enjoying a work on its own terms, taking it one beautifully constructed paragraph (or scene) at a time. And even if there's no big conclusion at the end of the series that ties all the books together, even if the description of a battle in book A contradicts the description of it in book B, well, I still enjoyed both books on their own, didn't I?
Mitch Wagner
13. MitchWagner
I loved the Dragaera books, but I have to admit I'm having trouble staying with them because I forget the action between one book and the next. A character walks on stage -- Aliera, for instance -- and I think, "Who's that? Have we seen her before?"

I read them anyway, but part of me is thinking of waiting until the series is done, and then reading it once all the way through.

I definitely think of the Dragaera series as fantasy, but it's a kind of fantasy where the characters use magic the way we use technology today. And, unlike the high fantasy I've read, the Dragaera world isn't struggling through a Dark Age, it is a mature, globe-spanning civilization in full flower, like our own or post-Elightenment Europe or Rome in the first two centuries A.D. (to name three examples.
Sean Eric Fagan
14. Matt Austern
I don't mind a long work where the author chooses to take it in whatever direction the story and the characters want. (Anthony Trollope; Patrick O'Brian) And I also don't mind a long work where everything is planned in advance and the tiniest detail and word choice is there for a reason, even if that reason might not be apparent for another thousand pages. (The Book of the New Sun).

What I do mind: a story whose chief appeal is the building up of a mystery, the hinting at grand revelations, when it turns out that the mystery was just random mystification and the revelations, if forthcoming at all, will just be junk. Most of my unfavorite examples of that come from TV. It's not clever, and it's not deep; it's just playing with the audience, and not in a good way.
David Siegel
15. bigscary
Or he could just have a bad memory, but these were major life events for him.

In one of the recent books (Issola or Dzur I think) Vlad makes it clear that he is reasonably certain that someone or something is actively meddling with his memories.
Sean Eric Fagan
16. Emmet
Dan @8:

I think it's actually explicit since Taltos. At least, Taltos and either Jhereg or Yendi contain contradictory accounts of how Vlad came to learn witchcraft and Eastern-style fencing.

Ther are, IIRC, enough other small contradictions between Taltos and the others that, prior to the revelations in re: Vlad having his memory fiddled with, I had considered it not impossible that Taltos was an in-universe forgery.
Bruce Cohen
17. SpeakerToManagers
I only just discovered the series about a year ago; I'm now uptodate with the exception of Jhegaala, and I just last week finished reading The Phoenix Guards, and I'm ready to make another run to the book store for the rest of that series. I'd read a couple of Brust's books before, but reading Vlad Taltos has moved him on my list from a writer I've somewhat enjoyed to one of my very favorites.

I think the various narrative techniques are partly to keep the stories (and the writer) fresh, but I think there's very little that's left to chance or random mystification here. Too many details resonate from one book to the next; too many tossed-off phrases in earlier books come home to make a huge difference in the plots or characters of later books. And while it's made clear that Vlad can't trust his own memories (and he thinks he knows who to thank for that), it's also clear, I think, that his audience (at least in his eyes) is not the same in all the books. It's also clear that there are more revelations to come; but there are internal clues that usually give away frauds like The X Files early in the game and I don't see any of those clues in Brust's work. I think he's going to end up giving us more than we expected, and a lot of that will be surprising (to me anyway, some of you may get it before he gives it away to us).

I'm in the camp that looks at these books as SF, (maybe Hard Fantasy, but I still think he's going to pull an sfnal rabbit out of that hat he's waving around). There are too many hints about the nature of magic and sorcery, too many parallels with our own industrial world, and I think I see a pattern forming here too. Not at all sure what it is, except that it's definitely not at all random.
Clifton Royston
18. CliftonR
The discussion here just got me started on (re)reading the entire series start to finish. Before I'd read random novels here and there, probably less than half of the whole thing, and had enjoyed them. Three and a half novels in, I can already see it makes a huge difference to take it as a whole.
Ankush Trakru
19. Quinty
this discussion got me reading the whole set in the first place...i have currently gobbled up the first 4; it's been 3 days and i WORK during the day ;-) should be up to speed in another week's time with Book 10 stocked up!
David Moldawer
20. Dave
We did an episode of the Kick-Ass Mystic Ninjas podcast about Jhereg:

Direct link

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