“Phoenix rise from ashes grey”: Steven Brust’s Phoenix

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like when things are going wrong—your wife is ready to leave you, all your notions about yourself and the world are getting turned around, everything you trusted is becoming questionable—there’s nothing like having someone try to kill you to take your mind off your problems.

Phoenix (1990) completes the story begun in Teckla and starts a whole new phase of Vlad Taltos’s life. It’s the story of how Vlad Taltos the Jhereg assassin is sent on a mission by a god, and everything changes. It’s written in the general form of a “how to assassinate” manual, and yet it’s the furthest from that pattern of story of any of the books so far. I don’t know if it would be a good introduction to the series—I suspect not, I suspect that it works best if you already know the characters. For the first time, we meet Zerika, the Empress. For the first time we get to see somewhere outside the Empire. It’s a different kind of book. Did anyone start here? Did it work? I really can’t tell.

This is the first one I have in a nice edition—the British publishers gave up after Taltos, perhaps surprised that nobody bought books with such awful covers.

If you hate Teckla, you may hate Phoenix too, but I never did. Unlike Teckla it has many saving moments—”where I come from, we call this a drum.” There’s trouble between Vlad and Cawti, there’s an Easterners and Teckla uprising, but that isn’t the whole focus, the book doesn’t get sunk into it.

The phoenix is a bird, mythical in our world but presumably real in Dragaera, though we’re never shown one. It “sinks into decay” and “rises from ashes grey.” Vlad seems to believe that nobody is born a Phoenix unless a phoenix is passing overhead when they’re born, but in the Paarfi books we see ordinary members of the House of the Phoenix, they just almost all died in Adron’s Disaster. The Cycle is in the House of the Phoenix and Zerika (the only living member of the House of the Phoenix, a reborn Phoenix rising from the ashes) is Phoenix Emperor. It’s hard to say what it’s like to be a Phoenix apart from being Empress, what they’d be like in another House’s reign. If it’s true that as Alexx Kay has calculated the Cycle will turn in 61 years, perhaps Vlad will still be alive to see. In any case, Zerika is the Phoenix that the book mentions, and for Vlad to behave like a Phoenix means putting the good of the Empire above his own concerns. Vlad’s constantly sacrificing himself for something or other in this book, and ends by betraying the Jhereg to the Empire and going into exile.

Brust must already have been gearing up to write The Phoenix Guards when he wrote Phoenix. There are a number of mentions of how things were before the Interregnum, which has never been mentioned before, and one mention of Paarfi himself, when Cawti is reading one of his romances. My favourite of these is when Vlad and Cawti have a choice of crossing the city by weary walking or nauseating teleporting and they wish that there were another option, like the carriages people used to have before they could casually teleport everywhere. The amulet Noish-pa makes Vlad against the nausea caused by teleporting, or “crossing fairyland” as he puts it, is one of my favourite moments—the nausea has been established and taken for granted and it turns out that there’s been a way to fix it all the time.

I tend to think of these books as having progressing time and gap filling. In progressing time, Phoenix is the last of the books in which Vlad Taltos is an assassin based in Adrilankha with an organization and an office with a secretary (genuinely shocking betrayal by Melestav, after so long) and Kragar coming in unnoticed. Vlad’s spent a lot of time away from the office in the books, but that’s always been there behind him. There is a sense of death and rebirth about Phoenix, endings and new beginnings, whatever Vlad is in the subsequent books, he’s not that.

In chronological order it would be Jhegaala next, and I’ve never read them like that. (Next time!) In fact, onward to The Phoenix Guards, and thence Athyra.


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.

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