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Issola
Steven Brust
Tor Books, 255 pages


Stephen Hickman
Issola
Steven Brust
Steven Brust was born in 1955. His writing includes the Vlad Taltos series (others are Jhereg, Yendi, Teckla, Taltos, Phoenix, and Orca), The Phoenix Guards, 500 Years After, To Reign in Hell, Brokedown Palace, The Sun the Moon and the Stars, Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille, The Gypsy (with Megan Lindholm) and Agyar. He also has done some short fiction in the Liavek series edited by Will Shetterly and Emma Bull. He lives in Minneapolis.

Steven Brust Website
ISFDB Bibliography
Steven Brust Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

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It is always a notable event when a new Vlad Taltos novel is published: with Vlad, Steven Brust has created one of the more original and memorable characters of fantasy fiction (a cynical scoundrel reminiscent of Leiber's Grey Mouser), a world and irreverent humour representative of the best of Terry Pratchett.  However, while the comparisons may appear obvious, it would be unfair to simply lump Brust along with these authors.  Brust's likeable if satirical protagonist, an assassin with sixty-three kills to his credit, is more introspective and philosophic than Lankhmar's Mouser. The cast is far more particularized than the cast of Discworld. The world of Dragaera, while as arguably developed and imaginatively rendered as the land sitting atop the Great A'Tuin, is seen through the more singular, often scurrilous world view of Brust's main character, who spends a great deal of his time simply trying to survive, or at least skirt his own death, beset by forces beyond his control within a society in which he is the perennial outsider.  His response, beyond the usual paranoia, suspicion, cynicism and self-interest expected of a man in his position, is best summed up by his admission:

"I was born human in a world of Dragaerans, an outcast in their Empire, so I learned how to get paid for killing them."
Considering that someone is always out to get him, it's amazing Vlad has retained a sense of humour, regardless of its mordant or sardonic outlook.

Despite Vlad's apparent contempt for the Empire and Dragaeran society, he has nonetheless made powerful friends amongst the Dragaeran nobility -- well, at least sometimes they act like friends, when their interests are not at odds or their often uneasy relationship has not broken out into outright hostility.  And Vlad would be the first to admit that it's difficult to feel totally at ease around a god or an undead Necromancer, regardless of how polite or solicitous at times they may be towards his welfare.  After all, usually in these circumstances they want something from him, and are just as capable of turning him to dust or worse, if it suits their purpose.  The intentions of deities are often inscrutable.  And, considering Vlad's irrepressible sarcasm, it is amazing he hasn't run afoul of their ire more often.

But Vlad is nothing if not a survivor, knowing when to run and hide when circumstances dictate.  At the opening to Issola, Vlad has been on the lam for several years from his own caste, the criminal society of House Jhereg, which in typical fashion he has double-crossed.  With only his familiar Loiosh as a companion, along with Loiosh's mate, Rocza, Vlad has been living a self-imposed exile in the wilderness, moving from campsite to campsite to avoid any assassins seeking to earn the reward placed upon his head (asking characters from time to time if they might be Mario), regretting the loss of his ex-wife, Cawti, as well as the luxuries of living in a civilized world, such as dinner at Valabar's or a good cup of klava.  His sojourn in the wilderness is about to end, however, as Lady Teldra seeks out his aid in order to discover what has happened to her master, Vlad's old, sometimes friend, sometimes nemesis Lord Morrolan and his impetuous cousin, Lady Aliera.  They have disappeared together under suspicious circumstances -- suspicious if only for the reason that both Morrolan and Aliera are themselves powerful sorcerers, not the type of people to misplace themselves or vanish without a trace.  As often happens, Vlad soon finds himself unwillingly embroiled in the plots of the powerful, this time involving not only the mysterious and menacing Sethra Lavode and the disconcertingly dead Necromancer, but the Demon Goddess Verra and the mythical Jenoine.  And it's up to Vlad to help save the world, a scary thought in itself!

As in past novels, Brust uses Vlad's adventures to explore and wryly comment upon the human condition, using tongue-in-cheek humour and burlesque to satirize both mortal and divine foibles, as well as delve into deeper philosophic and existential issues.  Also, the chapters are set up to provide a primer on courtesy! (No, don't worry: there's more going on here than meets the eye.)  And, after nine novels, the author finally provides many of the long-awaited answers to questions regarding the origins of his world, as well as filling in the cosmology and some of the physics behind how Dragaera works.  In the end expect a cosmic battle between the gods over the control of space and time in which Vlad does his best to beg off, or at least remain as inconspicuous as possible.  Of course, despite his most desperate efforts to avoid notice, Vlad eventually finds himself in the thick of it, with momentous consequences boding for dramatic changes to come in the future.  One wonders, at the end, whether Vlad will ever be the same again.

Compared to previous novels, is this outing an equal success?  I don't think so, in large part because of how the novel wallows during the sections devoted to various characters' captivity.  While providing much of the basis for some of the revelations regarding the physics behind the Dragaeran world, their presentation involves far too much lengthy interior monologue and too little narrative action to be entirely effective, slowing the pace into an expositional stall that is only somewhat rescued by the sudden and comparatively cataclysmic events that follow.  Nonetheless, anyone who has been following this series will undoubtedly want to read this work, as it provides, as mentioned previously, answers to the many questions regarding Dragaera's origins and long, convoluted history.

For those of you who have never read a Vlad Taltos novel before, with its many referents to past events and episodes, expect to be lost if you start the series here.  However, look upon this as your great, good fortune, for you can start at the beginning with Jhereg and then read the entire nine-volume saga cover to cover.  Trust me, once you start this rollicking, humoresque series, you won't put it down till you reach the conclusion.  Truly, one of the few fantasy originals!

Copyright © 2001 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.


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