Mar 29 2011 6:03pm

Tiassa dreams and plots are born: A Spoiler-Free review of Tiassa by Steven Brust

Tiassa by Steven BrustTiassa is the thirteenth Vlad Taltos novel by Steven Brust, and counting Brokedown Palace and the Khaavren Romances, the nineteenth book to date set in Dragaera. Jo Walton has written an excellent series of blog posts about the series so far so I won’t waste your time trying to summarize this amazing series and instead direct you to Jo’s spoiler-free introduction just in case you’re new to Dragaera.

Speaking of newcomers: while I think Tiassa is a wonderful addition to the series, I disagree with the Publishers Weekly review when it calls the book “very accessible to new readers.” Tiassa is a wonderful novel, but I’d go as far as saying that it could be one of the worst places to start for a newcomer to the series, because anyone who isn’t familiar with several plot lines and characters from past books would miss most of what’s going on. So, if you’re new to the series, stop reading this now and go find a copy of The Book of Jhereg instead.

The first thing I usually do when getting a new Vlad Taltos novel is page to the end to check if the book has seventeen chapters, as is often the case. Imagine my surprise finding “Chapter the Sixth” and a Paarfi-style How things unfolded summary as the header for the last chapter before the Epilogue. Hmm. Closer inspection reveals that Tiassa consists of three large segments: “Tag” and “Whitecrest” have five chapters each, while “Special Tasks” has six. Add one short section titled “The Silver Tiassa” and we have our seventeen chapters—not counting the Prologue, Interlude and Epilogue.

In some other books in the Vlad Taltos series Brust performs the literary equivalent of flying trapeze work by doing things like dividing each chapter into three separate narratives and keeping them all ticking along, or structuring books around a laundry list or a meal and somehow making it all work beautifully. Tiassa does something very different but equally surprising and skillful: it offers several separate stories told from multiple points of view, which pull together threads from the other books in the series while still delivering a coherent plot centered on a mysterious object: the silver tiassa.

The House of Tiassa’s line in the Cycle poem is “Tiassa plots and dreams are born,” and the chapter heading of the Tiassa chapter in Jhereg is “Inspiration requires preparation.” As you’d expect from Steven Brust, both of these are meaningful for the novel Tiassa: every section of the novel deals with a carefully constructed plot or scam that eventually turns out to be something completely different from what you (and most of the characters) thought it would be.

The first large section (“Tag”) is narrated by Vlad and is set in the time he was still running his territory in Adrilankha. He’s engaged to Cawti, and both Kragar and Melestav are still his employees. The story focuses on a complicated scam that involves the silver tiassa object as a red herring. The Blue Fox and Ibronka play a large part in it. This was my favorite section of the book because it’s set in my favorite part of the overall chronology, and Vlad narrates it in his own inimitable way. (In my own personal dream universe, Steven Brust produces one new novel per month set in this period of Vlad’s life. After finishing the series as currently planned, of course.)

The second section (“Whitecrest”) takes place after Vlad has fled Adrilankha, on the run from the Jhereg. It deals with another scam, entirely different and on a much bigger scale, again involving the silver tiassa. The five chapters are told in the third person and each have a separate point of view, including Khaavren, Daro, Cawti and Norathar. I’m not sure who the internal writer or narrator is: it’s definitely not Vlad, and the style is much too straightforward for Paarfi.

The third big section (“Special Tasks”) is written by Paarfi, in much the same style as the Khaavren Romances, and is set a few years later than the second part of the novel. A random Teckla finds a battered and bloody Easterner floating in the river north of Adrilankha, and dutifully delivers him to the nearest Phoenix Guard. Khaavren gets involved with finding out why he was injured, which leads to, yes, another scam that involves a certain silver object shaped like a tiassa.

Completing the puzzle, the shorter segments offer some revelations that should get Dragaera fans really excited, including a dizzying look through the eyes of Devera the Wanderer, and some things it would just be cruel to spoil, as much as I want to talk about them here.

Put all of this together, and you have a complex episodic novel that will reward people who are very familiar with the series or have recently read the previous books, because it features several characters we haven’t seen in a while and doesn’t provide much background about them. Yes, you could read Tiassa without knowing who Piro or Ibronka or Sara or Savn are (just to pick a few), but you’d miss out on most of the subtext. As a fan of the series, I still ended up at the Dragaera Wiki to check at least one name I vaguely remembered but couldn’t quite place. While some books in the series are fairly self-contained and can be enjoyed (if probably not fully understood) on their own, Tiassa has too many lines leading to and from other novels to work as an entry point to the series. Why PW called it “very accessible for new readers” will never make sense to me.

In the end, Tiassa probably won’t rank very high in my personal list of Dragaera favorites, if only because one third of it is essentially a Paarfi novel featuring Vlad. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Paarfi novels, but I don’t love them quite as much as Vlad telling his own story. Regardless, this is another great installment in the series. It almost feels as if Steven Brust is showing off: he covers a decade in the life of his main character while writing in several different styles and keeping a bunch of subtly connected plots going, linking back to previous books while also throwing in some new revelations—and then finally emphasizing that this is really just another stop along the way when Vlad muses, “Any point in a process looks like the process was leading up to it if that’s as far as you’ve gotten.” Yep. If you’re not reading the Dragaera novels yet, you’re missing out on some of the smartest and most entertaining fantasy around.

Stefan is a reviewer and editor for Fantasy Literature.

Chuk Goodin
1. Chuk
Kind of a lot of spoilers for a spoiler-free review.
2. Dietes
I'm thrilled- I love Paarfi!
Jasper Mijares
3. J. Amijares
The thing I love most about the Dragaeran books is that each story develops simply but at the end you find yourself at a completely different place from where you thought you were heading.

How the author does it just boggles the mind...
john mullen
4. johntheirishmongol
It's on order, and hopefully should be here in a couple of days. The Vlad stories are amazingly well put together and I would join you in your dream sequence.
Joseph Blaidd
5. SteelBlaidd
If you’re not reading the Dragaera novels yet, you’re missing out on some of the smartest and most entertaining liturature around.

Jim T
6. nabcif
I’m not sure who the internal writer or narrator is: it’s definitely not Vlad, and the style is much too straightforward for Paarfi.

I assumed with barely any thought that it was the narrator of Athyra.

I agree with Chuk@1; there are a lot of spoilers here for a "spoiler-free" review...but I never trust reviewers when they say that, so that's fine. ;-)

And of course "spoiler" doesn't mean the literal ruining of the book. But I can state I was absolutely delighted by some of the things you revealed here, and my reading experience would indeed have been very slightly diminished by that delight's lack had I known to expect them.
David Goldfarb
7. David_Goldfarb
Seeing Vlad talk like a Paarfi character (and while I love Paarfi, it must be admitted that all his characters sound alike) broke my brain.
David Goldfarb
8. David_Goldfarb
And, btw, it's actually "Tiassa dreams and plots are born", not the other way around.
Stefan Raets
9. Stefan
@1, 6 - There are so many interpretations of what constitutes a spoiler. I included a warning that there would be spoilers for previous books in the series, but felt that the review didn't spoil anything significant for Tiassa itself. By the way, the "spoiler-free" part of the title was added by the tor.com site managers, not by me - not that this matters, as I stand by it.

@2 - Then you should love Tiassa!

@3 - Well said. Tiassa is a strong example of this. I ended up turning right back to page 1 and re-reading the whole thing as soon as I'd read the final page.

@5 - I think the two terms can overlap , as evidenced by the name of the site I usually review for - "Fantasy Literature".

@8 - I guess I had plots on my mind! We've corrected the title. Thank you for pointing this out.
Maiane Bakroeva
10. Isilel
Hm... didn't read the review, but could it be that my dream of Vlad/Khaavren cross-over actually came true? Maybe we'll finally find out if Piro is actually a fictional character within Draegeran setting, as he very much seems to be?
Oh, the suspense...
Michael Grosberg
11. Michael_GR
I've been keeping my Kindle open last night, stealing looks every couple of minutes to see if my pre-ordered digital copy of Tiassa is there already. Say what you want about e-readers, but the instant satisfaction of having the latest sequel to your favorite series delivered the minute it's out... just can't be beat

I'm about a third in, and enjoying it. a lot.
Rob Munnelly
12. RobMRobM
Sounds from the review that I had better read the Khavren Romances before digging in. I'll fully up to date on Vlad but haven't read any of the other books. Oh well. Rob
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
13. tnh
David Goldfarb @7:

Seeing Vlad talk like a Paarfi character (and while I love Paarfi, it must be admitted that all his characters sound alike) broke my brain.

The editor enjoyed that a lot.
14. aleistra
While I haven't started the book yet, I love it already because the chronology is going to give those odd people who insist on reading series in internal chronlogical order rather than publication order fits. (Not that other Vlad books don't, but this one looks like it will do so even more so.)
Stefan Raets
15. Stefan
@10 - Piro a fictional character in Dragaera? I hadn't heard that one before. Could you unwrap that a bit?

@12 - I'd recommend it. The Khaavren Romances also fill in a lot of the pre-Vlad history of Dragaera (the "Interregnum" they keep referring to in the main series, basically).

@7, 13 - It's true. I kept trying to translate things like "I heard you, good Captain. But I do not understand why you do me the honor to ask this question" into regular Vlad-speak, and it started to make me go cross-eyed after a while.

@14 - Oh yes, Dragon already made it more or less impossible, but Tiassa is yet another nail in the coffin of that way of reading the series. I almost always prefer reading series - not just this one - in publication order, on the simple logic that that's how people who started when book 1 came out read them. The only exception for me has been the Miles Vorkosigan series, and that was just because I didn't know any better when I started.
Maiane Bakroeva
16. Isilel
Brief explanation for why I think that Piro might be fictional:

Dumas combined real historical characters like D'Artangan with wholly invented ones like his friends and a certain vicomte. And Piro should have been still active and reasonably well-known as a dear friend of the Empress who was instrumental in her serch for the Orb. Also, the story of their friendship doesn't make a lot of sense anyway - they may not be far apart in age for dragaerans, but that gap is pretty crucial as Piro would have been a child, while Zerika would have been a young woman.

And Piro's story and character just seemed so unsubstantial when compared with those of the old guard and of historical characters. As if Paarfi had to go out of his way to invent something for Piro to do...

I have browsed the "look inside" on the Amazon - at least parts of "Tiassa" seem to be set shortly after the "Dragon", right?
Stefan Raets
17. Stefan
@16 - Tiassa would seem to disprove that theory, at least if we can trust Vlad's narration, because he meets Piro very much in the flesh in the first major section of the novel. Piro also meets with Daro in the second major section, which isn't narrated by Vlad or Paarfi. So counting those 2, his existence has been mentioned by at least 3 separate narrators (Vlad, Paarfi, and whoever narrates the 2nd major chunk of Tiassa.)

And regarding your last question - I'm not an expert on the chronology at all, but I think the earliest major section of the novel is set right after Yendi but before Jhereg.
18. eew
For what it's worth, I just finished Tiassa, and while I agree that it would have been more or less incomprehensible without having read the rest of the Vlad books, I didn't feel like I missed too much for not having read the Khaavren romances, except insofar as the frequency with which I found myself grinning at Paarfi's style in the last part made me wonder why I haven't read them yet.

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