“Orca circles, hard and lean”: Steven Brust’s Orca

Orca was the first Dragaera book I had to wait for—all the others up to this point were out when I started reading. This is one of the ones I loved straight away. It’s set in what I’m calling in the main continuity, following on fairly directly from Athyra—by which I mean that I’d be very surprised if there were a book set between them. (I wouldn’t faint from astonishment, because honestly, Brust has surprised me so many times in this series and made it work that I wouldn’t put anything past him.) I was going to say that Orca would be a terrible place to start, and certainly it contains spoilers for everything up to this point, as well as many fascinating revelations and reversals, but I don’t know, for some people it might be a great introduction to the series. These books are so smart and complicated and subtle, I’m really glad that they sell well. Whenever I feel irritated with the concept of genre fantasy I think of the success of the Vlad books as evidence that you can get away with doing something different and exciting with it.

Spoilers: I mean it!

Orca alternates first person points of view between Vlad and Kiera the Thief, who is revealed at the end to be Sethra Lavode in disguise. I’d never have guessed—even re-reading here, I don’t notice the things that give her away to Vlad, and generally I don’t see it in the other books. It doesn’t feel wrong, but… very odd. It makes sense of some things. There is a lot of “I teleported home” or “to a place where I could…” which with the context is clearly Dzur Mountain, but which you can’t tell without. It’s more of that Agyar-shadow-space expectation-shaping by misdirection. Kiera/Sethra’s sections are narrated to Cawti—at least, mostly. She says she’s leaving things out, and we don’t know if she tells Cawti about her true identity. At the very end there’s one mention of the child Vlad Norathar—a child Vlad doesn’t know about, and with which she must have been pregnant at the end of Phoenix.

Vlad is on top form throughout Orca, wisecracking, conversing and with Loiosh, and after Athyra I was very glad to have his voice back. Yet as his parts are related to Kiera/Sethra and not to mysterious metal boxes or whatever, he’s different. Orca are capitalists and sailors. He doesn’t go on any ships, but he spends the whole book acting like an Orca, tangled up in business, trying to untangle the complicated business affairs of a dead Orca, Fyres, to sort out the property rights of a woman who is trying to cure Savn. The whole complicated property scam sounds remarkably like what happened to the US mortgage market last year, which is impressive for a book published in 1996. It’s interesting—the whole plot of Orca is very interesting, especially as the implications widen and widen.

Savn’s partial recovery is encouraging, but I do hope we see him again.

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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