Nov 16 2009 6:18pm

Playing the angles on a world: Steven Brust’s Dragaera

Dragaera’s a really cool world, and the publication of Iorich in January will be the seventeenth book set there. Seventeen is a pretty significant number for the Dragaerans, and for Brust, so even though I did a post on the Vlad books when Jhegaala came out, that was ages ago and it seems like a good time to do some re-reading. Brust tends to write books with seventeen chapters, or double-length books with thirty-four. The Dragaerans have seventeen Houses, and a cycle that gives each House power in turn—though all the books are set when the House of the Phoenix is due to give way to the House of the Dragon real soon now.

Dragaera looks like fantasy but there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s science fiction underneath, even though there are sorcerers doing magic, witches doing witchcraft, and the occasional person who can manipulate the forces of chaos with his bare mind. (This goes spectacularly wrong sometimes. The Great Sea of Chaos and the Lesser Sea of Chaos, the one where the capital used to be, are evidence for that.) What gives it the science fictional underpinning is the detailed complicated backstory and the underlying axioms about how things work. You can argue about it, but there are aliens and genetic experiments. It’s at least as much science fiction as Lord of Light.

One of the things that makes Dragaera so real is that Brust has given us two different kinds of stories set there, which lets you triangulate on information in a way I really like. You get this with Cherryh too, but it’s unusual. It may also be what’s stopped Brust souring on the world and the series — there have been gaps between books, but he has kept them coming, seventeen books since 1983, as well as unrelated books. The series isn’t finished, but it is continuing pretty reliably, and there’s no sign that Brust’s tired of it.

No spoilers at all.

There are the Vlad books (Jhereg, Yendi, Teckla, Taltos, Phoenix. Athyra, Orca, Dragon, Issola, Issola, Issola, Jhegaala, Iorich) twelve of a projected nineteen. They tell story of an Easterner (human) assassin who lives in the underworld of the Dragaeran (elf) empire. Vlad’s all wiseass first person. He has a flying lizard (jhereg) familiar, Loiosh, who’s always making psionic wisecracks like “Can I eat him now, boss?” and “Two dead teckla on your pillow!” Vlad knows a lot about witchcraft, a lot about cooking, quite a bit about how House Jhereg runs its criminal activities, and a lot about how to kill people individually without getting caught. He’s less good on history, geography, the way the Empire works, and personal relationships. He has some powerful friends, including Morrolan, who has the only floating castle in the world these days. (That disaster that destroyed the capital stopped sorcery from working for a while, so everybody’s floating castles crashed. Talk about the bottom falling out of the housing market...) The Vlad books aren’t all entirely from Vlad’s point of view, Athyra’s from the point of view of a Dragaeran boy he meets, and Orca alternates between Vlad and another very interesting other person. But mostly, we have Vlad telling the story of his life—and the question of who he’s telling it to and why has some interesting answers.

Then there are the Paarfi romances. Paarfi is a Dragaeran, which means he expects to live for at least a couple of thousand years. He’s writing historical romances set in his world, about real historical events and real people, much the way (and in the style) Dumas did in ours. The Paarfi romances (The Phoenix Guards, Five Hundred Years After, The Lord of Castle Black, and The Enchantress of Dzur Mountain aka The Lord of Castle Black, and The Enchantress of Dzur Mountain aka Sethra Lavode) are set years before the Vlad books, and deal with events that are backstory or history to Vlad. But some of the people, being Dragaerans, are still alive, and Vlad knows them well, whereas Paarfi is working from historical accounts. Paarfi’s good on getting titles and dates right, he understands how the Empire works, he’s also great at making up dialogue and motives. If Vlad and Paarfi contradict each other, for instance about the origins of the Interegnum, you have to consider that Vlad knows some of the participants well, but Paarfi will have looked things up. Vlad’s Morrolan’s friend, and knows some things about him Paarfi doesn’t know, but Paarfi’s researches might have dug up some information about him that he never mentioned to Vlad, because Vlad didn’t meet him until four hundred years after the events of Paarfi’s books.

These books are all great fun, good adventures, you don’t have to read them looking for background world clues. All the same, one of the things I love about them is the way you can absolutely trust that Brust knows what he’s doing, that his details add up, that he mentions a really good restaurant called Valabars a handful of times and finally takes you there in Dzur, that by the time you meet the Jenoine and the Serioli you have such a healthy curiosity about the hints dropped about them that you want to ring your friends and tell them there’s a Serioli! And it never falls flat. Brust pulls off bravura tricks of storytelling, revelations, secrets, backstory, complexities, and it’s never silly, never too much, never unbelievable. Although he’s been writing thse books since 1983 they are consistent in feel, almost never contradictory, and build up a solid world.

So, onwards to the individual volumes!

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently 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.

Sean Fagan
1. sef
There is also Brokedown Palace, which is definitely set in the same world -- and even during some of the same events -- as the Paarfi romances.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Ah. Yes. That makes eighteen, doesn't it? Rats. Well, there we go then.
Christopher Byler
3. Christopher Byler
But some of the people, being Dragaerans, are still alive, and Vlad knows them well

And Vlad's knowledge isn't limited to the ones who are alive, either.
Joe Sherry
5. jsherry
After going to Fourth Street twice, and reading you rave about these books (as well as talk about them this year), I finally started the series last month.

WHAT was I waiting for?! These are fantastic! I've got a lot of goodness ahead of me.

You started me on Cherryh and you helped start me on Brust. So, in general, thank you.
Kate Nepveu
6. katenepveu
The Paarfi romances (The Phoenix Guards, Five Hundred Years After, The Lord of Castle Black, and The Enchantress of Dzur Mountain aka The Lord of Castle Black, and The Enchantress of Dzur Mountain aka Sethra Lavode)

I believe you mean _The Phoenix Guards_, _Five Hundred Years After_, and then the three individual volumes of _The Viscount of Adrilankha_: _The Paths of the Dead_, _The Lord of Castle Black_, and _Sethra Lavode_ (which would have been _The Enchantress of Dzur Mountain_ except that Dzur is hard enough to spell that it seemed sensible to save it for when it was *really* necessary).

I'm so excited to hear that _Iorich_ is scheduled for January. That's very soon now! Yay!
Paul Weimer
7. PrinceJvstin
More Vlad? Excellent news!

There are a number of other ways to divide the novels, based on style and theme. There are definitely a few "kinds" of novels set in Dragaera. The Romances. Early Vlad. Vlad on the Run. Eastern-themed books.

I think, for me, some of the novels work better than others, but I keep on reading them without fail.
john mullen
8. johntheirishmongol
I have all of these, and my timing being really good this week, I happen to be just doing a reread of 500 Years After (in fact, doing the entire series over again). I really like this world, the writing is sharp and witty and unapologetic. Its very complex, with clues lying for novels that you can miss and then go back and say, how did I miss that? I highly recommend this series.
Jonah Feldman
9. relogical
I read the first few and thought, hey, these are some interesting fantasy noir-ish novels.

Then a few years later, I realized just how complex and complicated they are, with mysteries and foreshadowing and secrets on the level of some of the greatest series out there.

All of the things with seventeen. Devera. The messed-up chronology. The obscure references to other works. The different storytelling and narration tricks, and the unusual chapter openings.

Dragaera really masquerades as a bunch of adventure stories, but underneath, it's one of the most vibrant and carefully constructed worlds I've ever encountered.
Beth Friedman
10. carbonel
There are the Vlad books (Jhereg, Yendi, Teckla, Taltos, Phoenix. Athyra, Orca, Dragon, Issola, Issola, Issola, Jhegaala, Iorich) twelve of a projected nineteen.

ObCopyeditor: I only see eleven, plus two extra Issola.

Long ago Steve said that he was going to write 19 Vlad books -- one for each of the houses, plus two framing ones. Things can change, of course. But the Paarfi romances and Brokedown Palace, while they're set in Dragaera, don't count as Vlad books.
Christopher Byler
11. Christopher M Kane
Re: Carbonel

I believe the list should read like this - 1. Jhereg, 2. Yendi, 3. Teckla, 4. Taltos, 5. Phoenix, 6. Athyra, 7. Orca, 8. Dragon, 9. Issola, 10. Dzur, 11. Jhegaala, 12. Iorich.
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
Kate: I almost suppose that you are correct. But the last volume of The Viscount of Adrilankha will always be The Enchantress of Dzur Mountain to me.
Christopher Byler
13. CarlosSkullsplitter
Serious question: what would you consider a satisfying resolution to these novels?

I'll keep this spoiler-free. There are a number of key worldbuilding elements of the setting which Brust has not revealed, and there's the character arc of Vlad himself. And there are the strong and appealing voices that Brust uses.

So I guess I'm asking, which will be most important to you at the end: the revelation, the conclusion, or the narration?
Jo Walton
14. bluejo
Carlos: Oh what a good question! I think the revelation. But I'm hoping the other things will be part of that.
Christopher Byler
15. Jasper Josh
Spoilers aside, Iorich was the least engrossing Vlad book I've read in a while. It just didn't gab me the way the past few had. I'll wait until the review to get into why. Allegedly, Tiassa will be next, and hopefully we'll actually see Khavren in it.
Christopher Byler
16. Brian2
At the time the first two Vlad books came out, I read them and almost immediately reread them. A bit like a less cynical Zelazny, I thought (though, writing that down, I realize that's a point that really needs more discussion). Anyway, great fun.

Imagine my surprise when I lent the books to a friend of mine as we were flying to a conference, and he found them depressing ... I wondered if I'd missed something.

Of course, later on Brust does puncture the surface of this romp through leg-breaking and assassination, and Vlad falls to earth. You've been set up for a certain kind of escapism and when things go genuinely wrong it's the more painful for it. There's at least one of those books I'm sure I'll never read again. It's hard to tell whether this arose from Brust's own circumstances or whether it was planned in, but in any case it's very effective, in an almost meta-fictional way.
Christopher Byler
17. kamikaze
Wow, I started coming here because of Wheel of Time, and now you're covering my other favorite fantasy author? Awesome.
Christopher Byler
18. R. Emrys
I love the Vlad books. I have trouble getting into the Paarfi books, either because I haven't read Dumas or for the same reason I haven't read Dumas. I keep trying, because I really want to find out more about Sethra Lavode.

Are you going to do these in publication order, or chronological order? I think this is one of the series that works both ways.
Ben R
19. sphericaltime
This is officially awesome, one of my favorite reviewers reviewing one of my favorite authors.

Great! Looking forward to them!
Matthew Smith
20. blocksmith
Great to hear about the next Vlad Novel coming out in January.

I found Steven Brust's writing many years ago and I cannot agree with your assessment more. His ability to look at the same world from multiple perspectives is creative and original. He captures the tone and thought of aristocrats and criminals amazingly well and meshes the character interaction into the storyline as well as any author I have read. He is also one of those rare authors that can write humor and romance within sword parrys, dagger thrusts, sorcery, and high intrigue.

And the could start a thread just talking about the quotes from the Vlad series. For example, I loved the whole life is like an Onion monologue extrapolated as viewed by which House you are in.
Madeline Ferwerda
21. MadelineF
I love Brust, and the Dragaera books most of all. If I could erase my memory of a book and read it again, I'd do so for _The Phoenix Guards_ and _Five Hundred Years After_.

I'm looking forward with curiosity to the revelation about past lives. I look forward with laser-like focus to the revelation about the Phoenix. You know how Carly Simon had the charity auction for the answer to who, precisely, was so vain that they probably thought that song was about them? Brust could do that with the Phoenix stuff... Not that he should, necessarily, but...!

Also, didn't we see Khaavren in _Teckla_? I seem to recall him being rather disgusted by Vlad.
Christopher Byler
22. B. Durbin
Vlad goes up to Khaavren and tells him that everything's calmed down, and Khaavren is either disgusted by the fact that Vlad is an Easterner or a Jhereg, or possibly because he's both.
Christopher Byler
23. William H Stoddard
Oddly enough, though I love the Paarfi novels, I found the ones Brust wrote without Paarfi's collaboration unrewarding after *Jhereg*, the only one I still own . . . I stopped trying to read them after *Teckla*. I'm not entirely sure why. It's partly the authorial voice difference, I think, but partly my different reactions to the characters; in particular, the Paarfi novels have Tazendra, whom I like better than any other Brust character, not least for the way he shows her simultaneously as being admirable and deeply clueless.
Christopher Byler
24. GlennG
You know, periodically, we keep hearing rumors about a cookbook, one that may not tell us exactly where we can get powdered rednuts, but WILL at least tell us that ground and toasted hazelnuts (or some such) will work in a pinch, and just how to use them with roasted kethna. Anyone know any more than just the rumors?

Of course, with all the food references we come across in the books, reading one is a sure-fire method for me to get my cooking mojo on. And that goes triply so for _Dzur_, of course. My wife can always tell when I'm re-reading "those books" because dinners get fancier for a while afterwards...
Christopher Byler
25. Nightengail
Both my husband and I love the Vlad books, but we've tried and tried to get into the Paarfi books and can't get past the narrative voice. I understand that it's done in the style of Dumas, and the storyline of what I've read is interesting but the continual verbal sparring is exhausting. I've only ever managed to read half the first book, even though I would really like to learn about the history of Castle Black, Sethra and Morrolan.

My two favorite chapter openers of all time are the laundry list and Vlad's meal at Valabars.

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