Monthly Archives: November 2016

Athyra (Vlad Taltos #6)

Title: Athyra

Author: Steven Brust

Series: Vlad Taltos #6

Savn is happy in his life as a physicker’s apprentice. But when a stranger—an Easterner, no less—comes to town, and someone turns up dead, his idyllic life becomes a morass of confusion. Savn rather likes the Easterner, Vlad. The rest of his village hates Vlad, and Savn finds he’s now in the middle. And although Savn’s vow is to save lives, he’s got some hard choices to make. One way or the other, someone’s going to die.

Those who like Vlad’s first-person narration will probably find this book a bit of a shock, as the point of view and focus shift to young Savn, who experiences Vlad from the outside. It was a shame to lose the witty commentary with Loiosh, but I liked how it shows Vlad from the outside. Particularly when Vlad’s city-bred violence conflicts with rural life. Vlad can’t help but be disruptive, but this is the first book that deeply looks at things from the perspective of the people being disrupted. Rozca, Loiosh’s mate, also handles parts of the narration.

As the title suggests, the deeper focus of the book is philosophical and mystical. Savn faces several challenges to his way of thinking. The world as he thought it is isn’t exactly true—but how much of a difference should that make to the way he lives his life? I like that not only was this a journey, but Vlad (and Savn) offer no pat answers. Savn does what he thinks is right, but he’s never settled about the hows or the whys. He’s mostly acting from simpler motives, like his vow to save life and not take it.

The only thing I think didn’t work so well was the ending. I get what happened only because I’d read Orca first, and therefore knew how it played out. It’s a confusing battle for Savn too, but it would’ve been nice if the prose was a bit more direct about what happened.

All in all, I liked this as an addition to the Vlad stories. It’s got a lot of differences from the usual style, but it’s still an engaging story with a compelling main character. I rate this book Recommended.

Five Hundred Years After (Khaavren Romances #2)

Title: Five Hundred Years After

Author: Steven Brust

Series: Khaavren Romances #2

Despite the promising beginnings of friendship, Khaavren is the only one of his four comrades left in the Phoenix Guard. He’s been alone for hundreds of years, growing quieter, but still strongly committed to his duty. The Empire has been suffering from the neglect (and foolishness) of the Emperor, but as conspiracies threaten to unravel the kingdom, Khaavren determines to do what he must to protect his king and his country. Even if it does set him at odds with old friends.

This was more interesting to me than The Phoenix Guards. Knowing the end from the beginning—that Adron’s Disaster is the focus of the book—lends a certain tragedy to the whole affair. This is echoed in Khaavren himself, who started The Phoenix Guards by stumbling into a set of fast friends, but who starts this one alone. He alone remained in the Phoenix Guards, he alone has found neither friend nor spouse nor obsession to replace them, and he has tempered his original enthusiasm with almost a melancholy devotion to his duty.

Even when the circumstances bring him back together with his old friends, his duties hold them apart. Khaavren’s job is to carry out the will of an Emperor whose decisions are increasingly worsening the situation instead of improving it. Although he’s also influential enough, in his own way, to push for better courses of actions when he can.

This is also funny on a number of levels. For one, the assassination attempts against Khaavren. It’s a continual source of frustration to the powers that want him dead, and an amusing experience for the reader, who can see how little Khaavren expects any of them, yet how perfectly the situations work out in his favor. I also thought it was fun how he meets Daro, and what attracts him to her (she gets fired).

All in all, this book covers an interesting period of history in the Dragaeran Empire, one referenced a number of times in the Vlad books, but would stand alone just fine. I rate this book Recommended.

Jhereg (Vlad Taltos #1)

Title: Jhereg

Author: Steven Brust

Series: Vlad Taltos #1

Vlad Taltos is a mobster and assassin, and he’s just landed a contract so lucrative he’ll be set for life. If, that is, he doesn’t botch the job. Because this time his target is also a Jhereg, who knows how the game is played. It won’t be an easy kill, but if he can’t pull it off, Vlad won’t be alive to worry about the consequences . . .

I FINALLY got my hands on a copy of Jhereg, which I immediately devoured. It’s hard to believe this is the first book, and that’s not just because Steven Brust went and wrote prequels filling in some of the history Vlad so casually tosses out. The worldbuilding is immense, but tight—and having already read most of the other books, I can catch a lot of Vlad’s references (and I was pleased this book filled in some of the holes). But we already have Vlad, happily married to the woman who once killed him; his Dragaeran friends Morrolan, Aliera, and Sethra, who are all unique and dangerous; Daymar the innocently terrifying Hawklord, and on, and on.

They’re a great cast of characters, and each one already showing some snippets of untold amazing stories about how Vlad got involved with them. If this had been the first book I’d read, I’d still have wanted to track down everything just to see how this wildly different group of people had gotten so enmeshed in each other’s friendships. Morrolan, for example, is an extremely honorable Dragonlord—who not only has Vlad on staff, but calls him a friend (and given the lengths Vlad is willing to go for him, the friendship is mutual). It’s a testament to how well the series as a whole hangs together that most of those little details do get expanded in some book or other.

And this is in some ways an origin story for Vlad himself. We see him as he witnesses his first assassination, and as he bonds with Loiosh, his jhereg familiar. But the story never lingers on the past, preferring to hurtle along with Vlad’s present task of dispatching a man who is very, very difficult to kill. In many ways, the target has thought everything out perfectly. But as Vlad likes to point out, anyone can be assassinated.

The humor is perhaps a touch less developed than some of the later books, but still very present and very funny. Each chapter starts with some pithy saying, like: “You can’t put it together again unless you’ve torn it apart first.”

All in all, this is a great read whether or not you’ve read any of the other books, or whether or not you intend to. Like most of the series it’s basically a stand alone story set within a complex universe, and it plays out some small piece of the life of a very interesting man. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

The Phoenix Guards (Khaavren Romances #1)

Title: The Phoenix Guards

Author: Steven Brust

Series: Khaavren Romances #1

Khaavren is a young Tiassa noble (though not, it must be understood, very well off) who aspires to make a name for himself by joining the Phoenix Guard. Along with some friends he happens to meet along the way, Khaavren serves happily. Then a chance to win some acclaim launches him into a confusing spiral of intrigues.

This is set in the same world as the Vlad Taltos books, although centuries earlier. Accordingly, the book is written as a “historical fiction” about Khaavren’s humble origins and his first years in the Phoenix Guards. This involves much more ornate language and generally feels like a historical novel. I liked the technique, but as a novel it certainly wasn’t easier to get through with all the extra chattering by the narrator (the book even has a passage where the narrator expounds for an entire paragraph on the virtues of brevity).

It was interesting to see the regression in sorcery, and how everything functions more like a typical fantasy society because of it: horses for travel instead of teleports, messages sent by letter instead of psionics, and spells as tedious affairs hardly even practiced by sorcerers because of their limited effects. The worldbuilding is still strong. Khaavren is the outsider, so we get to see a lot of the Imperial Palace (a place that doesn’t even exist in Vlad’s day, or at least not that building) and the factions vying for the death (or saving) of a particular artist who killed a thoughtless critic.

Overall the slower pace and anachronistic language are likely to turn off some readers, but the actual mystery unfolds well and humor pops up throughout. I rate this book Recommended.

Hawk (Vlad Taltos #14)

Title: Hawk

Author: Steven Brust

Series: Vlad Taltos #14

Vlad’s slipping. He’s still in the city—he can’t tear himself away from the chance to see his wife, his son. And the Jhereg know it. Dodging the assassins is getting harder and harder, and sooner or later he’s not going to be lucky enough to make it. Which means it’s time to gamble, big time, on a scheme that has a chance to pull him out of this mess. But in order to earn Jhereg forgiveness, he’s going to have to offer something spectacular . . .

This is one of my favorite Vlad books. He’s so tired, desperate, cornered, but that doesn’t mean his scheming is any more straightforward. The action and tension ratchet up as he puts everything on the line for the merest chance he can call the entire Organization off his back. And after everything he’s been through on the run, it’s heartening to see a possible end in reach.

And the humor, as usual, is great. From Vlad’s amazingly funny explanation of cutting his own throat to him trying to figure out Daymar to his usual wry quips, there’s plenty of amusement to lighten the increasingly terrible situation he’s stuck in. At this point, Vlad’s not the only target, and he knows it.

All in all, this has me almost upset because I only have two more Vlad books before being caught up. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

Tiassa (Vlad Taltos #13)

Title: Tiassa

Author: Steven Brust

Series: Vlad Taltos #13

This is less of a novel and more like three novellas grouped together in a collection. They all feature a silver tiassa statue, but otherwise they’re very different stories.

The first follows Vlad as he attempts to collect from a bad debtor and becomes embroiled in his usual type of twisty, backstabbing scheme to get something far bigger.

The second is more about Cawti. Vlad is now on the run, and Cawti is trying to raise their son and keep out of trouble. She’s not sure how she feels about Vlad anymore, but when others start stirring up trouble, she’s willing to pitch in her efforts to handle things.

The third follows Khaavern, and is told in the same historical style as The Phoenix Guards (and sequels). Khaavren knows his duty, and when he finds Vlad victim of attempted murder, he’s determined to get to the bottom of things. Of course, Vlad is on the run and doesn’t want the help of the Phoenix Guards . . .

I enjoyed the stories well enough as separate tales, but I think it’s a mistake to try to treat them as a novel. The tiassa connection feels particularly forced in the third story, and the changing style of narration works against feeling like a cohesive whole. Add to that I’m just less fond of the overly wordy style of the Khaavren pieces, and for me the book got less enjoyable as I progressed.

Still, it was good to see some questions answered, and I liked seeing what Cawti’s been up to (her calling her son “Boulder” definitely got a laugh out of me).

Overall, this is probably my least favorite of the novels in the series, but most of that is due to the structure. If taken as a collection of shorter stories I think it works better. I rate this book Neutral.

Iorich (Vlad Taltos #12)

Title: Iorich

Author: Steven Brust

Series: Vlad Taltos #12

Vlad hadn’t intended to go back to Dragaera City, but when he hears Aliera has been arrested he can’t help getting involved. Puzzlingly, none of her powerful, influential friends (up to and including the Empress) appears willing to do anything about it. Vlad knows Aliera won’t appreciate it, but he has to do SOMETHING . . .

First: Read the epilogue. It’s a series of outtakes that had me in tears from laughing so hard. My favorites are the obligatory talking cat and the scene with Vlad walking outside the palace. I dearly hope this is going to be a tradition with the books going forward.

This was another fun one. Vlad is determined to get Aliera out of trouble that she and everyone else seems determined to leave her in. Not that it bothers him too much.

“And what do you think about the law?”
“Most of my thoughts about the law involve ways to circumvent it,” I said.

It’s a little sad to see how all of the people he loves are in their own small ways falling apart. But I like how honest the book is about not offering an easy happy ending, and instead going with the best way forward. Like how Vlad doesn’t dwell on the various troubles he picks up but instead looks for a way through. It’s a subtle progression of character for those friends Vlad has had for years, even now that being friends with him is not exactly a safe thing for those less powerful.

It’s also a very interesting look at laws and societies, how things are set up and why. I did like the lawyer Vlad ends up with. He has some good conversations about that.

All in all, this is one of the ones I liked better (although the outtakes are 10 stars out of 5), and I’m still eager to see where the series goes from here. I rate this book Recommended.