How does one go about reviewing the twelfth book in a series?
I've started this blog entry a number of times since I finished Steven Brust's latest entry in his Vlad Taltos series, and each time, after a few paragraphs, I've found myself stuck and unable to go forward or back. If I consider the reviewer's role to help the reader decide if the subject matter is worthy of attention, it sort of speaks for itself, doesn't it? It's the twelfth book in a series—clearly something must be going right for it to go this far. Enough people like it that they continue to buy it after a number of years (since 1983 in this case). And so immediately, the review splits in recognition of the audience being automatically divided—those who are reading the series and those who haven't picked it up. Managing those very different audiences is the balancing act that has had me stumped.
If you haven't read any of the books, you should know that Vlad Taltos is human, a minority in Dragaera, where the dominant race is bigger than us and more long-lived than us. In fact, due to magic, people can be returned to life after death, so long as their brains are not too damaged or they have not been killed using a special weapon. Dragaeran society is divided into groups that act a great deal like clans, usually based on birth, with the clans affecting everything from the jobs one can have to the color of the clothes one wears and how one looks. Moving from one clan to another is extremely difficult, with the exception of the two classes open to non-Dragaerans: the Teckla (the lowest class, laborers) and the Jhereg (the criminal class). Vlad had been a Jhereg, but he betrayed the criminal brotherhood and has been on the run. In Iorich, he returns to the capital city of Andrilankha to help a friend who may not even want his help. His return allows a reunion with friends and his wife and child, but it also puts him in the sights of the Jhereg. But that's just who he is.
The strength of the Vlad Taltos series is Brust's characterization and the interaction between those characters: I'm not sure there is a more fully round character in all of speculative fiction than Vlad Taltos (of course, Brust has had 12 books to make him so). Vlad is whip-smart, charming, witty, very sure of himself, and also capable of the most tremendous self-delusions. He is also a magician and one of the greatest assassins in Andrilankha (perhaps just behind the remarkable Mario). All of his books are nearly entirely narrated from his point of view, including his internal monologue; as a result we are given a remarkable vision into a singular character, a vision that includes Vlad's own bias when he deals with other characters. And with Iorich, Vlad has returned home to interact with the people he knows the best, falling into familiar patterns of interplay with people who aren't necessarily intimidated by him. With this book, Brust writes more comfortably than in the more recent books; Vlad just doesn't deal well with strangers and he isn't really a country person. While confident in his own abilities, he had been forced to try to read people in contexts he doesn't entirely understand, making him less sure than usual. A troubled Vlad actually put a cloud over some of the more recent books that I didn't recognize until it was removed in Iorich: Vlad wasn't being himself.
Back home, Vlad is clearly in his element, and the reader can see how his exile has changed him. On the surface, he seems to be the same as he ever was: wise-cracking and generally getting swept up in mayhem not necessarily of his making. But with our internal view of him, it's clear that he's grown up. The passages when he visits Cawti, his wife, and his son Vladimir are especially poignant—the palpable distance that he has to maintain from his family is telling in that the free-wheeling wise-cracking assassin is replaced, even in his own head. All of the snarky things that he says to himself, even about people he considers friends, are gone; he is focused on absorbing as much from their limited interactions as he can. It's also more clear than ever that Vlad's narration and characterization have their roots in the classic detective noir stories, now that his travels and troubles have worn him down. His narrative voice is world-weary and cynical even while his appearance seems easy-going.
If you have been reading the Vlad series, I don't know how you can't pick up this book, turning the page as it does on an important segment of Vlad's life and leading into what appears to be the last leg of the series. I have several ideas regarding where the series is going to end up, but given Brust's penchant to surprise and confound, I could be completely off base. It doesn't matter though; it will be fun getting there. The reader just has to remember how ground-breaking this work was when it was first published more than 15 years ago because Brust's run of excellent writing just gets taken for granted. Vlad's is a pretty unique voice in speculative fiction, and it's remarkable how apparently effortless it is for Brust to pull off. It is too easy to take the craftsmanship that Brust has for granted in the anticipation for the next book in the series.
Whether or not I can recommend this book to someone unfamiliar with the series depends on their tolerance for continuity. For instance, there are only references that Vlad's departure from Cawti and his child have to do with the Teckla and the Jhereg; for some readers they can get by without knowing the details because it only influences how we got to this point without directly contributing to the plot of Iorich. For others, it might be maddening to not know why two people so clearly in love cannot be together. There are references to past events that a new reader might not even now are references, and if that reader does pick up the possibility, they will also be unaware that Brust loves to make references to events in Vlad's life that have not been written yet (and may never be). On the one hand, I am hesitant to tell folks they need to go pick up 12 books and expect at least five more in the series. But on the other, this really is some very fine writing, easy to get into and rewarding the closer that you read.
Ultimately, the best recommendation I can make is that I constantly watch the forthcoming release lists to find out when the next book by Brust is coming out. Now that I have finished Iorich, I'm impatient for the next book. And I often recommend Brust to folks who are looking for good fantasy. It's solid writing and the story is very compelling. I'm pretty sure that, even if someone were to start with Iorich it would not be long after that they would be trying to find the earlier books as well.