Friday, April 1, 2011


Tiassa is the thirteenth book in the Vlad Taltos series by Steven Brust. That one sentence is packed with a couple of connotations that require unstuffing.

1. The Vlad Taltos series by Steven Brust is popular; there are enough people buying the books that there is a market for at least thirteen installments. And why shouldn't there be—the hero of the series is Vlad Taltos, a wise-cracking human assassin living in a world primarily inhabited by what we might call elves and he calls Draegerans. They're tall, extraordinarily long-lived, and capable of sorcery, and Vlad is decidedly out of place among them. But over the course of the series he has made friends in very powerful positions, and his character has gone from being something of a pet amongst the Draegerans he knows to a valued companion. He has probably saved the Draegeran Empire several times over, and the Empress has given him a title and rank in her court.

A little google fu also indicates the popularity of the series. It started in 1983, so Brust has been publishing books in the series for almost 30 years. There is also a second series closely associated with it—the Khaavren Romances—that is set in the same world but at an earlier time. Brust also has a phenomenally popular Web page, and there is an active wiki for his fictional world.

2. While popularity does not equate with quality, the fact that I have read 13 books in an ongoing series should be indicative of how I feel about it. I do not believe there is a better writer of dialogue currently in speculative fiction than Steven Brust. He is aided in this task by his creation and evolution of wonderful characters, the foremost being Vlad Taltos himself. Vlad is a smart-ass, but he is constantly aware of his own limitations, including hubris and the aforementioned wiseassery. Vlad is also a keen observer of people, a characteristic that has helped to keep him alive in his job as an assassin and in the years that follow his self-exile from his home city, on the run from the criminal element he formerly was a part of. He is accompanied by his faithful companion, Loiosh, a jhereg—a sort of miniature dragon—that can communicate with Vlad telepathically. Loiosh has become the perfect foil for Vlad, and their mental conversations are delightful and often hilarious. And still, beyond these main characters, all the characters Brust works with, even the new ones or the ones who only appear for a few pages, are fully composed and alive, with distinct voices and personalities.

Vlad usually narrates his own stories, and through his eyes, Brust has realized a fascinating world and culture that is layered and complex as any other fictional world. And when Vlad isn't narrating, Brust throws himself into the voices of those narrators as strongly as he does Vlad. Most notable is Paarfi Roundtree, a loquacious and perhaps prolix historian who cannot keep from inserting himself into the stories he tells, the Khaavren Romances. While Vlad laughs at everyone, including himself, Paarfi cannot do either, and ends up forcing the reader to laugh in his stead.

Given this history, then, is Tiassa a worthwhile addition to the series? Unequivocably, the answer is yes.

You can imagine that after 12 books, there is a lot of storytelling inertia built up. Connections are made and questions get asked that lead off onto tracks that the narration may not get to. Vlad is a rapscallion who seems aware of his audience, and he enjoys teasing them by making implications and deferring information, sometimes to other books. Brust is also building a complicated world and complex relationships within it, and so questions get asked that also don't get answers until later in the series. So, for 12 books now, while there have been some answers, there have been a lot more questions, and with Tiassa's arrival, a lot of those questions begin to get answered. Of course, more questions get asked as well.

Tiassa also is something of a narrative experiment for Brust: the book is divided into three sections with three different narrators—a third-person neutral narrator, Vlad himself, and Paarfi Roundtree. Each narrator is used in a different section of the tripartite story of a jeweled broach: a silver tiassa or winged tiger. Vlad's section, as one might come to expect, involves a complicated con job he runs on characters that seem vaguely familiar and are eventually revealed to the forgetful or uninitiated reader. Of course, if the reader truly is uninitiated, the revelation would have little value to them. The third-party narrator tells the story of how the silver tiassa is sought in order to repel an invasion by aliens (yes, extra-Draegeran entities). And Paarfi tells the story of how the broach ties into a beating that Vlad receives and its relation to an issue of national importance. And because Paarfi narrates, some of the characters from the Khaavren Romances become main characters in a Vlad story, which has not happened before in Vlad's own stories.

The result is a delight for longtime fans of the series: stories from three different periods in Vlad's life and a huge cast of characters that until now have had very little interaction. It is also a tour de force for Brust, showcasing the strengths that make his writing so appealing—characters and narrative flair. Because of the depth and breadth of the overarching plot of his series, readers approaching the series for the first time are going to miss out on layers of complexity, and yet I think the storytelling is straightforward enough that an interested reader can follow what's going on treating these as brand new characters. But the layers truly are so very rich that those new readers would be missing out on a lot of wonder and fun.

Honestly, new readers just need to bite the bullet and go find a copy of Jhereg, the first book in the series, and dig in. Fortunately the Vlad Taltos books are not long and so are packed with the crazy splendor that is Steven Brust's writing. And fans of the series need to get this latest addition as soon as they can.

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