Judging a book by the cover: Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series

Literally the only thing ever taught to me by my mother was “never judge a book by its cover.” (I was twenty-five before I figured out it could have a metaphorical application to things other than books.)

Nevertheless, Steven Brust’s Brokedown Palace was the first Brust I ever read. I read it because people recommended it online. It’s good, but strange, and not a good place to start. People weren’t recommending it particularly. What they were recommending over and over was Brust’s Vlad Taltos series—the books that start, in publication order, with Jhereg or, in chronological order, with Taltos. People whose taste I trusted were telling me I’d love these books.

But what you’ll see if you click on those links are the beautiful Ace covers. I was in Britain. Time after time I went into the bookshop and I looked at the Pan cover depicted to the right. Or, for Taltos, an even worse cover, which Brust himself has described as “the Hitler Youth Vlad” and a friend of mine called “proactively hideous.” Hardened SF professionals wince when they see it. This cover is so awful that Google Image Search claims to know nothing of it. Probably it breaks scanners.

So I kept picking up these books, so highly recommended and saying “These books? Surely not,” and putting them down again. There’s a Roger Zelazny quote on the back. Not even that persuaded me.

Eventually, after reading Brokedown Palace and The Phoenix Guards and The Sun, the Moon and the Stars I gave in and bought the first four Vlad books, despite the covers. And of course I loved them. I’ve read them often since. They have a great first person smartass voice, they have plot complexity, they have a world with the look and feel of fantasy but the solidity of science fiction. They have great characters.

I’m just beginning another complete re-read, because I have my copy of the new one, Jhegaala. Normally, when I re-read them I re-read Emmet’s beautiful American copies. Last night when I finished my book and wanted to start Jhereg he was working in his study and I didn’t want to disturb him. So I went to my own shelves and picked up my own horrible edition. I wanted to read it. Really I did. Even so…

There are eleven Vlad books now. I’m going to be writing about them as I re-read them. Only the first four (in two volumes) have ever been published in the UK. It might not be to do with the covers. But then again, I do wonder whether it might.


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