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The Book of Taltos
Steven Brust
Ace Books, 389 pages

Kinuko Y. Craft
The Book of Taltos
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
SF Site Review: Issola
Steven Brust Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

This reissue of musician, author and one time computer programmer Steven Brust's earlier solo novels Taltos and Phoenix, both out of print but here gathered in a single volume, is most welcome.  Chronologically comprising books one and five of the ongoing adventures of Vlad Taltos (though in sequence of publishing, four and five) this work forms a companion volume to the earlier Book of Jherig containing the stories Jherig, Yendi, and Teckla, together ensuring that all five of Brust's earliest Taltos novels are once again available and in print, as well as in a format more commensurate with the quality of the author's narratives, and deserving of more than mass market.

The character of Vlad Taltos is one of the more singular in contemporary American fantasy.  An assassin for the introspective, with vulnerabilities and foibles that are all too human, Vlad inhabits a rather unique and jaundiced world and culture that somehow works and prospers despite its best, or worst, efforts.  Bearing a certain skewed resemblance to our own, the Dragaeran Empire (though no one would ever accuse the United States of imperial ambitions) is divided into seventeen Great Houses, around which each book to date has been titled.  Vlad occupies the lowest caste, the Jherig, whose business interests run towards the unsavory.  In fact, Vlad might be said to occupy a caste of his own -- Taltos -- as he is an Easterner, human, and no Dragaeran, barely accepted amongst the ranks of the Jherig, let alone his own people.  The proverbial outsider, Vlad straddles the margins of both human and alien society, truly accepted by neither, while making his way killing Dragaerans and often his own employers, a vocation which suits Vlad just fine, as he hates the ruling races and Houses.  And yet he numbers his closest and dearest friends among them.

A contradiction?  Confusing?  Like life itself, Vlad is more than just a sum of his parts, Vlad's personality as well existing in a state of constant turmoil and conflict -- perhaps more diplomatically stated as evolving.  Regardless, Brust's disreputable hero can hardly be defined by simple, jaded cynicism, though one would scarcely accuse him of naiveté or being a romantic.  He did, after all, kill his first Dragaeran (at least that he's aware of) at age thirteen, became a hired assassin at seventeen, and always carries "various goodies that I conceal about my person because it's better to give than receive surprises."  Sarcastic and mistrustful, Vlad nonetheless meets and makes friends in the unlikeliest of places.

Such as the Paths of the Dead: as a human he's not even allowed there (of course Vlad would be the first to question why anyone would press for permission or an invitation), yet in Taltos he finds himself inexplicably lured by the Dark Lady, Sethra Lavode ("a vampire, a shape-shifter, holds a Great Weapon, is probably the most dangerous wizard living, and has the habit of killing people who get near her, unless she decides to turn them into norska or jherig instead") to her eyrie catacombs (trust me: the description is apt).  There she convinces him (well, as I recall, there is a large amount of money involved as well as unspoken threats) to join the Dragonlord Morrolan, who lives in a floating castle, is himself a wizard and a witch, and yes, carries another Great Weapon, in approaching the gods to demand the release of the soul of the Dragon Heir from a wand in which the soul has been imprisoned.  The reader may here need to be reminded that Vlad really doesn't care all that much for Dragaerans or the Empire, and that only one person has ever returned -- at least alive -- from traveling the Paths of Dead, to fully understand some of Vlad's dilemma.  Nevertheless, his new, unsought partners in this affair will soon become among his best and most trusted (if not always reliable) friends in future installments.  And, he gets to meet Verra.

The companion novel, Phoenix, jumps ahead by three books.  Even though Brust's stories have always stood fairly well on their own, I would suggest reading the three stories presented in the Book of Jherig before tackling this tale, if for no other reason than to gain a sense of the players as well as the historical context in which the tale takes place.  Once again Vlad finds himself importuned upon, this time by no less than a goddess, to assassinate the king of Greenaere (as opposed to the orange air that blankets Dragaera?).  By the time this narrative has run its course, Vlad will have lost a wife while effecting her rescue, gained a new friend who may be a spy, come close to dying again (those of you who have followed the series will recall that Vlad has been killed at least once), played a part in a rebellion, murdered one ruler while saving another, taken strolls with the Empress, become the first Jherig (let alone human) to be honored with an Imperial title, partaken of the mysteries of drumming, and learned the identity of Aliera e'Kieron's mother while meeting Aliera's daughter who is yet to be born.  A hectic few days for Vlad, though a typical week for our wayward hero.

While diverting, Taltos is a far stronger story, more tightly focused and less rambling, containing three temporally separate though related narratives that evolve to inform and exist as one.  By comparison, Phoenix appears as a snack of dried kethna (though it does possess a nice piece of poetry).  Nonetheless, both tales represent Brust at some of his best, told with the same inventiveness, humor and irreverent tone and spirit that have caused some to draw comparisons to Terry Pratchett.  Granted, fans of one will likely enjoy the other, but such analogies may well short-change both authors.  Enjoy Vlad's adventures on their own merits: marvelously imaginative burlesques that, while not always as successful as others, are assured to be entertaining as well as smartly written.  And, when you're least expecting it, Vlad's exploits can turn deadly serious.

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.

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