Tue
Dec 8 2009 5:43pm

“Issola strikes from courtly bow”: Steven Brust's Issola

Issola would be the absolute worst place to start the Taltos series, because it is chock full of revelation. The first time I read it I could feel my jaw dropping further and further as I read, stunned as things I’d wondered about and engaged in online speculation about were discussed and explained in detail and at length in a way I’d never suspected they would be. Issola contains more conventional fantasy plot and more revelation than all the other volumes up to this point put together. If this were an ordinary series, it would be a climactic book. As it is, it changes the shape of the possibilities of the series. In comments on my first post on these books, Carlos Skullsplitter asked “which will be most important to you at the end: the revelation, the conclusion, or the narration?” The answer to that would have been different before Issola, Issola changes everything. It’s set in what I’ve been calling the main continuity, sometime not long after Orca.

Spoilers start here.

Issola are heron-like birds. We’re told they sit full of grace and stillness and strike lightning fast when they see a fish, then return to stillness. The House of Issola are famous for their courtesy. Issola is framed as a manual on courtesy, and certainly Vlad is polite and considerate in it, and Lady Teldra tells him that he understands courtesy better than he thinks. The significant Issola is Lady Teldra herself, who we have seen previously only in Castle Black as Morrolan’s greeter, saying and doing the right thing on all occasions.

The plot is relatively simple for a Vlad book: Morrolan and Aliera have disappeared, Sethra and Lady Teldra send Vlad to look for them, they’ve been captured by the mysterious Jenoine, Vlad rescues them, is captured, they rescue him, there’s a big battle with the Jenoine in which Verra and other gods fight with our friends, Lady Teldra is killed and becomes part of Godslayer, a Great Weapon made of her soul, Spellbreaker and a powerful morganti dagger. I called this “conventional fantasy plot” as shorthand above. Of all the Vlad books, this is the most like a normal fantasy novel. All of the other books have plots that are moved by comprehensible individuals, and some kind of mystery which Vlad is trying to untangle. Here the mystery is the Jenoine, and what we find out about them from Sethra (who ought to know and has no reason to be lying) near the beginning is all we continue know of their motivation.

There have been hints of the Jenoine before, but here Sethra sits Vlad down at great length and explains the Jenoine, the gods, and the way the world works. With what’s said about “tiny lights” in Dragon, it seems quite clear that humans came to Dragaera from Earth, probably using some kind of Morgaine/Witchworld gate-type science but perhaps in spaceships, met the native Serioli, got entangled with the non-native, powerful Jenoine, and were experimented on (genetically and otherwise) to make them psychic and to make Dragaerans out of them. Sometime after that point the gods (and being a god is a job and a skillset) revolted in some way involving the Great Sea of Chaos and Dzur Mountain, and since then have been trying, mostly successfully, to keep the Jenoine out of Dragaera. Oh, and we also learn a lot about Great Weapons, and that Adron is in some way conscious in the Lesser Sea.

I can never decide whether I like Issola or not. I find it unsettling—so much happens so fast it leaves my head spinning. This sort of thing isn’t often a problem for me when re-reading. It’s one of the reasons I often enjoy re-reading more than reading something for the first time. But with Issola, I keep thinking next time I read it I’ll be able to relax into it, and that never happens.

This is a book with some lovely lines, and some beautiful set-pieces, but what I remember it for is the sensation of standing under a trapdoor and having a load of revelation dropped on my head.

On to The Viscount of Adrilankha.


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.

32 comments
Liza .
1. aedifica
I think Issola is my favorite of the series so far, and it's because I like Lady Teldra so much in it. (Before this book I liked her all right but not more than any other background character. In this book she became a favorite.)
Thomas Bounds
2. Boundzy
I can never decide whether I like Issola or not. I find it unsettling—so much happens so fast it leaves my head spinning.


I agree that there is a load of information in this book, and I'm not sure that I have a complete grasp of it all, but I definitely like Issola. Lady Teldra is a great character.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
I agree, Lady Teldra is great. Before Issola she was just scenery, here she shines.
Leigh Butler
4. leighdb
Issola is by far and away my favorite Vlad book.

I really enjoyed all the others (with the possible exception of the brutal emotional hazing that was Teckla, but that's not an *aesthetic* objection per se), but Issola scratched an itch I didn't even know I'd had about the series till I got to it. Which was, just as you say, "more *fantasy* with my fantasy, please".

(The Usenet joke about this complaint used to be "needs more frozen zombies".)

So, to get a Vlad book with world-building infodumps, self-realization moments galore, a magical Thingamajig (which is also a sword! well, okay, a dagger, but still!), AND a Big Ass-kicking Battle ending - sigh. Yay.

Sometimes you really just want some plain old-fashioned fantasy tropes with your interesting new take on the genre, it turns out. Well, I do, anyway.
David Goldfarb
5. David_Goldfarb
One thing that I've thought for a while about Issola: The Jenoine got exactly what they wanted. If what they wanted was to control the Lesser Sea of Chaos, why kidnap Morollan and Aliera, dragging them into the matter, when they did? Morollan and Aliera hadn't discovered their plot yet; why take the risk of an escape instead of just leaving them in ignorance? But if they wanted to bring Vlad into things (perhaps they couldn't find him directly, due to his safeguards), and if they wanted to create circumstances that would bring Godslayer back into existence...then they seem intelligent and competent, rather than like fools. And if they didn't bring Godslayer back, then at least they'd be in control of the Lesser Sea of Chaos. ("Not one path to victory, but all paths.")

(Aside: did the humans come to Dragaera under their own steam? I always thought they were kidnapped from Earth by the Jenoine.)
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
David: I find the Jenoine incomprehensible, and your theory is makes a lot of sense. Why would they want Vlad to have Godslayer, though?

I'm not sure why I thought humans came to Dragaera on their own. Something the Serioli said? I do like how much the Jenoine planet is a *planet*, with funny air and gravity and a sun (furnace) different from what Vlad's used to. Leigh may want more fantasy with her fantasy, I want more SF with mine!
Tex Anne
7. TexAnne
Wait, bringing Godslayer *back* into existence? Did I miss something?

I too thought humans came to Dragaera on their own--if the Jenoine had brought them by force, I don't think they'd have packed Marx and Engels for Kelly to find. It's possible that the humans got the travel tech from the Jenoine, and not looked a gift horse in the mouth. (Where *did* Morrolan learn to make windows, anyway?)

And I cried harder over Lady Teldra than any fictional character in recent memory. I still choke up when rereading the making-of-Godslayer part. And then the moment when Sethra tells Vlad to say hi to her when she wakes up...hmm.
Avram Grumer
8. avram
Also, in this book Vlad briefly experiences godhood.
Liza .
9. aedifica
Without subscribing to David_Goldfarb's theory, I can see one reason for the Jenoine to want Vlad to have Godslayer: the gods are one of the forces keeping the Jenoine from meddling further with Dragaera.
john mullen
11. johntheirishmongol
Once again, Brust has given us a beautifully written book with lovely revelations and great characters. Lady Teldra is a wonder in this book, graceful, elegant, beautiful and smart. The only sad thing is that we don't get to explore her character further.

Frankly, I thought he had much more rapport with Teldra than he ever has with Cawti.

The Jenoine are odd enough and alien enough that they are a realistic adversary for major powers like Sethra and gods. This is where the scifi in his books really shows up
Liza .
12. aedifica
The comment at 10 appears to be a new and unusual sort of spam. Huh. (That user's other recent comments on this site follow the same pattern, it seems.)
Dholton
13. Dholton
Half of why I love this book is for the reasons stated by you and others above: revelations, Spear and Magic Helmet-making, awesome Battle of the Gods etc. But the other half is for the quiet moments where Vlad and Teldra are having really interesting discussions about nothing much at all. Even Vlad remarks on how much he enjoyed them.

re the Jenoine's plans

I also suspect that at least part of their plan was to have Godslayer created. However, I suspect they paid a much greater price than they anticipated. They had two (or three?) of their number killed. I'm guessing that's a fair percentage of their number. If not, they could rule the universe anytime they wanted.
Jonah Feldman
14. relogical
I don't see how this is a standard fantasy plot any more than the others. The characters just stand around talking, exploring their boundaries, and solving problems until the final battle. Not that it wasn't amazing for those very reasons.

I was really surprised at how Brust turned Lady Teldra from a throwaway character mentioned now and then to the driving force of the plot and a tragic character whose death hurt even more than Morrolan's would have if he hadn't gotten better. Bravo, Brust.
Maiane Bakroeva
15. Isilel
I have contradictory feelings about Issola, because on the one hand I really enjoyed all the sf revelations about Dragaera and it's inhabitants and Jenoine and also the character of Lady Teldra.

But OTOH, I really dislike super-powered Vlad and cohorts and prefer books where they are much more low-key and threatened by lesser and more personal dangers.
Adron being aware in the amorphia also seemed a bit meh to me. "500 Years After" was such a perfect tragedy - why spoil it?

Anyway, speaking of the Gods - I assumed that they also were alien beings captured and possibly altered by Jenoine and used as lab technicians during the whole Dragaera experiment. Who eventually revolted and helped to boot out their masters. Is this the case or am I totally off base?

Or and BTW - is it ever explained who and what are "demons"? I really need to re-read, I guess...
Jo Walton
16. bluejo
Isilel: Demons are gods that can be controlled. Verra's title of the Demon Goddess is interesting in that context.

I think what we're told about the gods is that what you suggest is true of some of them, and especially Verra, but since Sethra was offered godhood it's clear that others have also achieved it. (I do like the way Vlad thinks "Dear Verra!" and etc and then remembers she's right there.)

I don't think Adron being conscious spoils the tragedy, it makes it worse, unless you think being a conscious sea of Amorphia would be fun. I'd rather be dead, I think.

Relogical: What I mean is, it's superpowered people with magical weapons and the help of the gods defeating a threat to the world, rather than oh, finding out who owns a house, or where a thief is hiding.
Maiane Bakroeva
17. Isilel
Well, yes. That is how the others also achieved "godhood", I assume, - i.e. that Jenoine enhanced them to make them more useful for their work - and unwittingly gave them enough power and knowledge to successfully revolt.
And "gods" now have the know-how to similarly enhance other deserving individuals. However, it seems that currently existing "gods" were never any type of human to begin with, but rather from alien species.

Demons are gods that can be controlled

Which doesn't explain where they actually come from. Can an accomplished Dragaeran sorcerer eventually become a demon? Or are they default members of the alien species that also produced gods? Or specifically from Verra's species, hence "The Demon Goddess"?

Re: Adron, I found the notion that his soul was irrevocably destroyed more tragic.
Christopher Turkel
18. Applekey
I am glad I'm not the only one who found this book information overload. It was good but I had to read it twice and even now, reading the other comments, I still don't exactly get it.

Maybe the book is a greek tragedy: Adron's mind is trapped in a sea of choas, Vlad unwillingly under goes a power transformation and the gods, well, the gods do what gods do.
Jo Walton
19. bluejo
Applekey: The gods do what they do in Greek tragedies? They... come out of machines? Actually, that's an interesting thought, considering Sethra's machine in Dzur Mountain. Heh.

Isilel: We see a Serioli-god in The Paths of the Dead and if Sethra were to have accepted the offer she'd have been a Dragaeran god. It also seems that whatever Verra is, she's sufficiently close to cross-breed with Adron -- though her motivations on that are insufficiently clear. (Which leads to more questions about Devera. I more and more think that the Vlad books must end with something substantive about Devera.)

The Necromancer is a demon -- Sethra says so, and we see her appear in The Lord of Castle Black. She doesn't look weird like Verra, or if she does, Vlad doesn't mention it.
Blue Tyson
20. BlueTyson
Yes, there is a nice heaping helping of 'holy crap' in this one. :)
Maiane Bakroeva
21. Isilel
Did Verra actually cross-breed with Adron or did she just engage in some gengineering? It is generally a pity that she latches on to promising Dragonlords... e'Kieron line seems to be largely extinct due to her attentions and e'Drien line is not far behind.

The one thing that still highlights the series RPG origins is how Brust neglects to give the Dragaerans a replacement level reproduction. The few Dzur- and Dragonlords who survive long enough to found families should have a dozen children apiece, to make up for all the heroic demises :).

Anyway, this still doesn't tell me what a Demon is. Clearly, a denizen of Dragaera could, with help of the other gods, become a god. Is the same true of demons? Or how do they come into being?
Dholton
22. elwoz
It's said somewhere that what makes a demon is the ability to exist in more than one place at the same time, and that this implies a bunch of other stuff. It seems to me that this demonic ability is more akin to necromancy than any other form of magic we've seen. (Underlining this, the gods and demons that we see all seem to be quite adept at necromancy.) I'd guess Morrolan could become a demon, if his necromantic studies led that way. There's probably also some connection to undeath - when the Necromancer comes to Dzur Mountain in The Lord of Castle Black, Tukko says she's undead (and only then that she's a demon).

I do wonder why Sethra turned godhood down. There's some suggestion that the gods have a lot of constraints on their actions, so maybe she just thought the tradeoff wasn't worth it.
Alexx Kay
23. AlexxKay
"I'm not sure why I thought humans came to Dragaera on their own."

I'm away from my books at the moment, but my Timeline claims: "Terrans(?) discover Dragaera (P 117, Dn 110, Is 36). Although some theories claim they were brought in by the Jenoine (Jr 110), this is pretty clearly false (Is 35-36)." So check pages 35 and 36 of Issola.
Ben R
24. sphericaltime
Issola is my favorite Vlad book so far, but Ms. Walton is correct that it isn't a good place to start.

As for the questions about what makes a demon:

I remember that somewhere it is suggested that demons are somewhat similar to Gods, but that Gods cannot be summoned and demons can. This is an Easterner division though and I don't necessarily think that Sethra agreed with it at the time.

I will say that I think that Jo Walton is a bit imprecise about Gods. It's not necessarily just that they're a skillset. Gods don't necessarily all have the same skills, apparently. There is something separately "divine" about them as well, according to Verra.
David Goldfarb
25. David_Goldfarb
OK, I just re-read pp. 35-36 of Issola: Sethra claims that the humans are not native to Dragaera (certainly true) and that they were present on Dragaera before the Jenoine arrived, that the Jenoine came later. If we accept that as true, then it certainly implies that the Jenoine didn't bring the humans, and that they came under their own power seems like the most reasonable alternative possibility for now.
Jo Walton
26. bluejo
David: Thank you. That leaves open the question of whether they got there by necromancy (gates) or spaceships, but that's secondary.
John S Costello
27. joxn
A "god" has the ability to exist in at least two places at once. A "demon" can be summoned.

In Brokedown Palace, arguably what Miklos and Bölk do by destroying the statue of Verra in the courtyard is to summon her -- so maybe she can be summoned, but only by Easterners and taltos horses, and that's why she's the "Demon Goddess"?
David Dyer-Bennet
28. dd-b
Isilel@21: if the average Dragaeran lifespan is somewhere around 2000 years, then replacement-level reproduction is 1 child per adult per 2000 years, i.e. MUCH lower numbers of children around than replacement-level for humans gives rise to.
Alexx Kay
29. AlexxKay
Joxn@27: Note also that, by the end of BP, Verra is "dead" -- in Fenario. That is, though she can manifest in multiple places at once, Fenario is no longer one of those places.

Compare with the Serioli name for Godslayer: "remover of aspects of divinity".
Matthew Smith
30. blocksmith
Issola ranks third for me behind Jhereg and Yendi, but still a great read. Ms. Walton is right on that there are some serious questions answered.

Teldra's death was tragic and surprising. I did not see that coming. And even though, somewhat by definition, the Great Weapons are MOA, having her soul combined with spellbreaker and the morganti blade did not make things any better in my mind.

I always wondered/conjectured if there was a romantic relationship between Morrolan and Teldra...

Finally, IIRC, wasn't Verra somewhat...apprehensive...about Vlad's possession of Godslayer?
Dholton
31. MichaelK!
REALLY REALLY can't wait until Lady Teldra wakes up...
Dholton
32. Jack V. (cartesiandaemon)
I actually _did_ read Issola first, years ago, when someone recommended Brust to me very highly, but didn't go into enough details, and it really is very very very disappointing to do so. In fact, when I later fell in love with the series I got as far as Issola, and then all the way through was haunted by remembrance of how little sense it all made the first time, which stopped me enjoying the revelations much (and normally I really LOVE revelations about how the universe works).
Dholton
33. Veritas
I'm guessing space or (even more far fetched) inter-dimensional travel. Remember what the Serioli said in Dragon? "People from the small,invisible lights"?

To throw in more wild mass guessing, I've always wondered about a connection between either the Gods or the Jenoine and the Fallen ever since I've read To Reign in Hell. The Flux does sound an awful lot like Amorphia does it not? (I actually Started reading the Kaav. Romances first,then the Vlad series, and got around to To Reign in Hell last.)

Finally, I think Sethra turned down Godhood simply because she does state (I think it was in The Lord of Castle Black) that for all their power,the Gods are too tightly bound. She may,at times,be bound to Dzur Mountain,but she,in raw power and the ability to freely weild it,is probably more powerful than the Gods themselves. Then go and add Iceflame to the mix... yeah, I'd turn down Godhood too!

Does anyone else think Brust should have some replica Great Weapons made? I for one, would love to own a replica of Blackwand and Iceflame! (Even better if it is good quality steel,and functional. Just in case.)

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