Nov 24 2009 10:25am

“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.

William Frank
1. scifantasy
About "the Teckla of the title":

The way I understood it, the titles of the books refer not to actual characters, but to the House--each book answers the question, "what does it mean to be a ?" So, in Jhereg, we (and Vlad) get a real sense of how it is to be a mobster; in Yendi, Vlad has to unravel a scheme...and so on.

Apparently, Taltos was originally going to be titled Easterner, which fits.

But yes, it's pretty clear that Vlad gets his "Teckla lesson," as it were, from Paresh.

(And to the theme of the perspectives, we get another look at what Paresh describes in another book.)
Adam Lipkin
2. yendi
I’ve never seen anything even remotely like that done before or since.

As far as "since" goes, Dzur does something similar, pairing each course at Valabar's with the contents of each chapter (although the relationship is more symbolic than literal, as with Teckla).
Christopher Turkel
4. Applekey
I liked this one when I read it. It wasn't an easy book to read since it was rather bleak and dark but for me, it showed a major step forward in Vlad's growth and how sometimes, one does not have as happy an ending as one would like.

Now Taltos, I dunno, I dind't like that at the time.
David M Gordon
5. David M Gordon
You read too fast, Jo!

My copy of The Book of Jhereg just now arrived; it includes JHEREG, YENDI, and TECKLA... and is almost 500 pages.

How do you do it? I am midway through Daryl Gregory's first novel, have two other books for which I owe reviews to the publishers, and now you are posting reviews of Steven Brust's oeuvre (whose novels, almost always, I thrust to the top of the heap) at the pace of 3/week! And, damnit, you make each book you review -- or even comment on tangentially -- a compelling purchase, if not read.

I thought I read fast, but you are a speed demon. I cannot order the books fast enough to keep up... And you already are on to the next.

Happy Holidays,
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
David: I read fast, and these are not long books. I can get through a Vlad book in a day.

I know several people who read much faster than I do.
Jonah Feldman
7. relogical
I read Phoenix before Teckla, so I found it a little boring. It felt like I was reading the first half of a book, and I had already read all of the exciting scenes in the end.

Of course, all Dragaera novels are more complex than they appear, and I still got to like it for that aspect.
David M Gordon
8. R. Emrys
That isn't how things work in Dragaera.

This is possibly my favorite thing about the series. Brust deliberately created a world in which his own closely held beliefs go against the laws of nature. That's an awfully impressive way to keep your story from being buried under a pot of message.
Alexx Kay
9. AlexxKay
"Brust deliberately created a world in which his own closely held beliefs go against the laws of nature."

Um, almost, but not quite. Remember that Brust is inordinately fond of the unreliable narrator. It is Verra who says that Socialism can't possibly work on Dragaera -- and it certainly can't while she and the other gods remain in power. It's part of the fundamental laws of *her* universe, but not *the* universe, if you see the distinction.

There was a time before there were gods on Dragaera, and there might yet be a time after. Vlad might even be actively be involved in such a transition, given the weapon he gains in _Issola_.

That said, the publication history of the Paarfi books suggests that the Empire and Cycle continue in much their present form for at least another 240 years. It seems unlikely that Kelly will ever see his revolution succeed.
Tex Anne
10. TexAnne
What interested me about Verra's remark is that it proved what I'd suspected: this is sf, not fantasy. (My first reading was out of order, so it probably isn't the first evidence in the series.)
Patrick Garson
11. patrickg
Ooo, Teckla is probably my favourite of the series so far. Not only do the characters undergo tremendous development and depth, but Brust confronts what is effectively the elephant in the room in so much fantasy. The frustrations and difficulty involved will all too clearly evoke memories in anyone who has worked in a political organisation - particularly a 'grass roots' one.

In some ways, you could compare this book to Mieville's Iron Council, but where I felt Mieville retreated into empty symbolism to mitigate his downer ending, I felt that Brust keeps his downer ending with a tacit and frank acknowledgement that the Dragaera have not resolved any of these feelings, but simply crushed their loudest vessels.

Also having Vlad question not only his origins, but the fact his ostensible profit and entire life is built from the misery of his kinspeople is done in such a believable and interesting manner.

Teckla was the book where I thought, "Hey there _is_ something more to these books."
john mullen
12. johntheirishmongol
This is not one of my faves, mostly for the same reason that you found it, the breakup of Cawti and Vlad. I thought it was quite sad, especially since they didn't really talk to each other, just sadly went separate ways.

Unlike most of Brust's books, which are quite complex and layered, the politics were simplistic and naive. Also, for a fantasy/scifi series, a socialist movement doesn't really make a lot of sense.

Also, this was the one book that I had figured out the easy answer about 3 pages into it. It was a little disappointing to figure it out that quick
Patrick Garson
13. patrickg
Also, for a fantasy/scifi series, a socialist movement doesn't really make a lot of sense.

Hi John, genuinely curious, why would you say that?
David M Gordon
14. J. Bradford DeLong
Because it's not the Tecklas' turn to be at the top of the Cycle...
Jo Walton
15. bluejo
J. Bradford DeLong: I was thinking about Teckla Republics, what they'd be like. They have to last at least several hundred years, and there have to be nobles of the other Houses left afterwards. They arise from an Orca reign and give way to a Jhegaala one. It doesn't have to be like the Russian Revolution, though of course it could be. The obvious pattern for one would be the French Revolution, but it's hard to see quite how it would last that time, even seen as a time in a much longer life. Or there's the way Athenian democracy followed Pisistratus and was followed by Demosthenes and Alexander. They could have done both of these things several times, or there's the possible model of the Roman Republic where the patricians serve the Republic, which I'd think as part of the Cycle would be the best one could hope for.

I'd be very interested if Paarfi (or anyone else in Mr Brust's stable) wrote a story set in a Teckla Republic.
john mullen
16. johntheirishmongol
I was also thinking that the French Republic would be a model that would have worked much better for this book. Since there is no indication of mass production, no large cities to speak of outside of Adrilankha, and its primarily an agrarian based economy, socialism doesn't seem to fit, even with Marxist literature. At best this is about early 19th century economies, at least as seen.
Tex Anne
17. TexAnne
The French Revolution would work, but only if you went straight to Napoleon--do not pass through the Terror, do not collect a bunch of noble heads on pikes.
L. K.
18. kitryan
I would imagine that knowing something about what was coming and that it would end would change the nature of a Teckla republic to something without a direct analogue in our history of revolutions- possibly more like I imagine (not knowing loads about it) elections in places like Italy go, where there's a real likelihood of an oddball party coalition getting elected, but everyone knows that it won't last. Which is why the Interregnum would be even more traumatic, since they don't really have that comforting knowledge that 'this too shall pass'
Jo Walton
19. bluejo
Kitryan: Absolutely right about the Interregnun, but as far as knowing it can't last, the same applies to any of them. Any House's reign is inevitably finite, and you'd know what's coming next. In a normal Dragaeran lifespan, you'd get two or three reigns. Isn't that an interesting thought!
L. K.
20. kitryan
I mostly meant that if I were a non-Teckla noble, I'd be a lot more relaxed about everything suddenly being a republic and being run by those dratted Teckla, since I know that it's finite and I'll probably outlive it and it'll be my House's turn soon enough, while none of the mentioned historical revolutions had a built in expiration date when they started. Which kind of makes it like an election system, if the winning party were pre-ordained :)
Avram Grumer
21. avram
The Orca, remember, are the mercantile house, the bankers and long-distance traders. Teckla republics are probably populist uprisings in reaction to some sort of out-of-control financial crisis. Maybe the banks start repossessing too many farms.
David M Gordon
22. Pamela Dean
This is actually one of my favorites of the Dragaera books. The limited scope, the view of Vlad and Cawti's domestic life (which is falling in ruins as the book progresses, but Vlad's housework gets me every time, as if each object told its own story), and finally, the way that Vlad can't fulfill his own plan to murder the people in his way, because he has talked to a ghost. The scope of events is limited, but what is going on in Vlad's head is a real change and an opening out. The whole book is almost inside out. I'm not sure if that makes much sense.

David M Gordon
23. Alfvaen
I always pictured it as "Heck, I could publish Vlad's laundry list and it would sell!"

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