Dragon was the first Vlad book to come out from Tor. It was published in 1998, a year after Emmet and I had met Steve Brust when he was guest of honour at Convocation in Cambridge, and when I first read Dragon I did wonder whether he’d written it this way deliberately to stop it being possible for me to read the series in internal chronological order. Dragon is not in the ongoing chronology, but set way back between Taltos and Yendi, with a frame story set immediately after Yendi. In addition to that, it’s told with the beginning of every chapter advancing one part of the story, while the rest of the chapter goes back in time. The book has three timelines within it—the post-Yendi interludes, the beginning-chapter advancing story, and the end-chapter advancing story. You’d think it would be as complicated as hell to read, but it isn’t, it flows smoothly and clearly, but very very out of sequence. This flow works largely because it’s carried by Vlad’s voice at its most brash and bouncy, and partly because it’s the story of a war. This is a different, but equally artificial, device from the cliffhanger-starter method Zelazny used in Doorways in the Sand and it gives me far less whiplash.
Like Five Hundred Years After, Dragon gives us a story we’ve heard alluded to before, the Battle of Barritt’s Tomb. And again, Brust turns some of what we thought we knew inside out. The books do all stand alone, but I don’t know if Dragon would work as an introductory volume. It isn’t one I’d give someone to start out with, I think it probably works best for a reader already invested in Vlad and his story.
There are a large number of Dragons around, but then there always are. There’s Morrolan and Aliera (and maybe Sethra) there’s Sethra the Younger, there are all the Dragons in the army and most of all there’s Fornia. I think there is always a characteristic member of the relevant House around, as well as Vlad acting like a member of the House, I’ve just realised that quite often it’s an enemy—the Sorceress in Green in Yendi, Loraan in Athyra, Fyres in Orca etc. The only real exceptions are Phoenix and Teckla. In any case, Vlad definitely acts like a Dragon here—he wants personal revenge on Fornia and he joins the army and goes into battle. He develops a sense of honour, and he has fun complaining about the food and the rain and the boredom and the indiscriminate slaughter. Also, he talks about talking to Sethra about tactics and strategy and logistics.
I remain very impressed that Brust does Vlad at different ages and life-stages so well. In Orca we have an older, wearier, warier Vlad, here he’s young and ready for anything, quick to take offence, and not really frightened, yet Vlad does grow within the novel.
Vlad sees what was probably the picture that ended the Athyra reign and started the Phoenix one, as mentioned in The Phoenix Guards, but of course he has no idea of the historic context of what he’s seeing, it’s just a picture to him—unless it is just a different picture of a wounded dragon protecting her young, but I think that would be a twist too many. It’s interesting to see him begin to run Morrolan’s security. Meeting Daymar is interesting too—and especially meeting him through Kragar. (I wonder how they met?) It’s nice to see a little bit more of Vlad and Cawti when they were happy, even if it is a very little bit. It’s interesting to see how Aliera got Pathfinder and got rid of Kieron’s sword. I loved Loiosh being the mascot and everyone feeding him, and I loved Vlad getting used to the awful food. The tricks Vlad plays, burning the biscuits and so on, are also neat. When I think of Dragon it’s the little details that stand out, along with Vlad’s long slow journey across a battlefield. This may be because the chronology of the book requires me to build a structure to hold it in my head to get the shape of the story, and after I’ve finished reading it, even if that was yesterday, it’s work to hold on to that structure.
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.