Wed
Nov 25 2009 1:20pm

“How can you tell?”: Steven Brust’s Taltos

Taltos (1988) is set before all the other books in the series, or at least all the books written so far. It’s a great place to start, especially for people who like reading by internal chronology. It’s also a very good book, one of the best. It’s surprising that Brust preferred to circle back and tell this story instead of finishing the story he’d started in Teckla, but I’m sure he had his reasons.

Taltos is the story of how the young Jhereg assassin Vlad Taltos grew up, met some of the friends and colleagues he relies on in the earlier-written later-set books, and how they get him embroiled in larger events and have an adventure.

Spoilers, including a spoiler for Orca.

Taltos is the first of the Vlad books to have a weird structure. The book is ordered in seventeen chapters, as usual, but each chapter begins with an account of Vlad doing a spell which, if written chronologically, he does in the last chapter. Each chapter also contains a flashback to Vlad’s childhood and youth—these are in chronological order in themselves, but not in terms of the overall story. There are two threads, Vlad growing up and Vlad’s buttonman going to Dzur Mountain and the consequences of that. That’s three threads with the spell. Fortunately this is all held together by Vlad’s voice and by the interest of the events.

Reading in publication order, the reader is already aware that they succeed in rescuing Aliera—Aliera is a major character in the later-set books. However, seeing Vlad meeting Morrolan and Sethra and Aliera, and discovering something about the Paths of the Dead is so inherently interesting that this doesn’t matter at all. Also, if you read the books in chronological order, you get Taltos and then Yendi, (well, you used to) which gives you two books in sequence in which a new Dragon Heir is discovered. This way, they’re well separated.

Taltos is very much about Vlad as a human, and what it means to be an Easterner among Dragaerans. It’s also strongly about Vlad doing witchcraft. If “taltos” has the meaning that “taltos horse” has in Brokedown Palace, then it definitely has something to do with innate magic. Vlad creates a spell to move an object.

It’s clear to see how the object itself, the god’s blood that Kiera gives Vlad, lets Morrolan escape. It’s less clear why Kiera/Sethra gave it to Vlad with such vague instructions. Surely it would have been more useful for her to tell him to take it. I’m not sure what odd rules Sethra is playing by—I don’t know if it’s possible for us to understand. Maybe making Vlad work it out for himself if part of it. Similarly, seeing Vlad without Spellbreaker makes it clear how powerful sorcery is and how much Spellbreaker does for Vlad.

Taltos is one of my favourites of the series. I like Loiosh, I like the stuff about Noish-pa, I love the way people in the Paths of the Dead keep being surprised they’re alive and Vlad keeps asking them how they can tell, I like the first meetings, especially with Lady Teldra and with Morrolan. I like the way Vlad doesn’t understand why Verra is so pleased Aliera’s soul has been found. (It must have been an awful shock for Verra when Aliera’s body and the Orb showed up.)


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.

9 comments
jon meltzer
1. jmeltzer
That's a pretty big spoiler :-)

But, yeah. That's when I started thinking, have those two characters ever been onstage at the same time?
David Goldfarb
2. David_Goldfarb
jmeltzer: Really? My hat's off to you then. I had no clue up until the big reveal.
Marissa Lingen
3. Mris
When my grandfather died, I reread Taltos, because it's one of the only fantasy or SF novels I've read that puts really proper stock in grandfathers. (Suggestions for other examples are of course welcome, at my gmail address--marissalingen--if you don't feel like cluttering this comment thread with them.) And also because it's good.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Mris: One of the things I liked most the first time I read Jhereg was how Vlad was a character with family and friends and a support system. He and Noish-pa care about each other, and this is the book where that gets really demonstrated.
Christopher Turkel
5. Applekey
For the longest time this was my least favorite Vlad book (Athyra is the book I like least now, by a long shot). As I read further into the series, I wondered why I didn't like this book.

I think it was because it wasn't the Vlad book I was expecting. No assassinations and other cool Vlad things, just a journey that is metaphysical in nature and way over my head.

I just reread Taltos and I do like it better. There is a lot going on I completely missed the first time. I had my intellectual knives sharpened this time when I came to the table.
john mullen
6. johntheirishmongol
This is a necessary book in the series, because it puts together all the relationships that are so important. Without this, there is a huge weakness as to why they are such close friends, and so dependent on each other. This makes the rest of their adventures together believable.

In a lot of ways, this is just world building, but the journey is so worthwhile you cant help enjoying this book.
Maiane Bakroeva
7. Isilel
Taltos is my favorite Vlad book together with the Dragon.
Yes, they are both not stereotypical Vlad, but then I always felt that vintage Vlad was a bit shallow, due to really thin worldbuilding of House Jhereg. The whole gender segregation thing just seems totally out of whack with the rest of Draghaeran society and was obviously conceived to make Vlad look more sympathetic and to evoke contemporary comparisons.
Michael Alan Dorman
8. Michael Alan Dorman
This is interesting for having the one great continuity flub that I'm aware of---Morrolan claiming to have been among Zerika's escorts to the Paths of the Dead.

Given the otherwise high level of continuity in the series, it suggests that the Paarfi novels were an unexpected side-trip that he hadn't already conceptualized ahead of time.
Michael Alan Dorman
9. Jeff R.
Michael: or else it could have been planned. Or is retroactively part of the new plan. There's a bit in a later novel in which Vlad throws doubt onto the entire narrative of this book, IIRC implying that Morrolan did something to his memories.

(My own reason for thinking that it may have been planned all along is that it may tie into the mentioned-but-never-really-followed-through-on mystery of exactly why Morrolan was able to go inside and then return...if Tazenda's soul wasn't supposedly well-accounted for I'd think that it was borrowing Morrolan's body to enable that trick the be pulled off, telling her own war story through M's mouth...)

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