Brust's Tiassa: versatile fantasy in three modes

By Cory Doctorow

Steven Brust's Tiassa is the thirteenth volume in the long-running Vlad Taltos series, a fantasy epic that combines hard-boiled crime-writing with economic critique, revolutionary war, fine cookery, and (naturally) swashbuckling sword and sorcery. Vlad Taltos is an Easterner (a human like us) among Drageareans (immortal, magical faerie folk who belong to one of several noble "houses" that influence their character and profession). At the series' start, Vlad is an assassin within the Jhereg house (which controls the crime in Brust's world), working through his fury and shame at having grown up in the Easterner underclass by killing Dragareans with gusto. Over the series' many volumes, Vlad gets entangled in revolutionary politics, is married and divorced, meddles in the affairs of the empire, dies and is brought back from the dead, and more. Brust clearly delights in writing this character and this world, and each volume has some clever structural trick that enhances the story -- for example, previous volumes have been organized around explaining the items listed on a laundry ticket and the dishes served on an elaborate menu.

Tiassa is structured in three novellas, spanning ten years of Vlad's life, with some interstitial matter. The first novella, "Tag," is a caper story set in the early part of the series and is told in the Chandleresque, hard-boiled style that characterized the first few books. The middle novella, "Whitecrest," is a story of political intrigue set during Vlad's exile, told with expert timing and a lot of wit. The final novella, "Special Tasks" is told in the style of The Phoenix Guards and its sequels, a highly mannered, absurdist adventure story in the mode of Alexander Dumas. All three revolve around a maguffin, the silver tiassa (an animal like a winged tiger), fashioned by a mischief goddess and possessed of hinted-at mystical powers.

Tiassa showcases Brust's great versatility and the vast sweep of the Vlad Taltos books. Like all the books in the series, it's a cracking adventure yarn, a finely tuned piece of literary storytelling, and a frustrating reminder that the adventures of Vlad Taltos will take many more books to complete, and these books aren't finished, and you will have to wait and wait and wait to read them.

I've written glowing things here about the Vlad books many times before. If you haven't read the Vlad books yet, start here and then go on with this list (I wouldn't recommend starting with Tiassa). Meanwhile, get writing, Brust! We want the next one!

Tiassa

Published 4:57 am Tue, May 3, 2011

About the Author

I write books. My latest are: a YA graphic novel called In Real Life (with Jen Wang); a nonfiction book about the arts and the Internet called Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer) and a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.

24 Responses to “Brust's Tiassa: versatile fantasy in three modes”

  1. T Nielsen Hayden says:

    Hello again, Vnend; we cross-posted. Thanks for posting the link at Dream Cafe.

    • Vnend says:

      Hey there, long time no see (in person, anyway).

      Yeah, I figure good old-fashioned positive reenforcement can’t hurt.

  2. Lobster says:

    I’ve never read his work, it might be excellent. I just consider it a wasted opportunity when you make up a fantasy creature by squishing together exactly two real ones (eg. tiger + wings).

  3. Anonymous says:

    > Vlad gets entangled in revolutionary politics, is married and divorced

    Is Vlad divorced? I thought he was merely separated.

  4. WizarDru says:

    I enjoyed the Taltos series until it went wide-afield of its original material and spent long swaths pushing the author’s politics. Brust is welcome to his personal beliefs, but he let them derail the series for many books, until he got past the whole revolution sequence. He sucked the fun right out of the books for a while with boring and depressing debates about the fate of the worker. Was it a worthwhile discussion to have? Perhaps. But it was out of left field for the series that had been LOL funny and exciting and became drab.

    Later books seemed to recover from that, but I was no longer a consistent fan. I’m not even sure what the last book of his I read was. I did enjoy ‘To Reign in Hell’, his fantasy version of the Fall of Heaven.

  5. elizabethmolin says:

    Why is it always so hard to find a list of the titles in a series IN ORDER? A few authors provide this service on their websites, but I wish Amazon would do it as a standard service.
    So anyway, which title is the first in the series? I found one on Amazon with a date earlier than the one you give with the link “start here.”

  6. Steve says:

    THE DRAGAERAN SERIES BY STEVEN BRUST

    VLAD TALTOS SERIES

    01) JHEREG (Ace – 1983)
    02) YENDI (Ace – 1984)
    03) TECKLA (Ace – 1987)
    04) TALTOS (Ace – 1988)
    05) PHOENIX (Ace – 1990)
    06) ATHYRA (Ace – 1993)
    07) ORCA (Ace – 1996)
    08) DRAGON (Tor – 1998)
    09) ISSOLA (Tor – 2001)
    10) DZUR (Tor – 2006)
    11) JHEGAALA (Tor – 2008)
    12) IORICH (Tor – 2010)
    13) TIASSA (Tor – 2011)

    PHOENIX GUARD SERIES

    01. THE PHOENIX GUARDS (Tor – 1991)
    02. 500 YEARS LATER (Tor – 1994)
    03. THE VISCOUNT OF ADRILANKHA
    Book 1 – The Paths of the Dead (Tor – 2002)
    Book 2 – The Lord of Castle Black (Tor – 2004)
    Book 3 – Sethra Lavode (Tor – 2004)

    THE FENARIO NOVEL

    01. BROKEDOWN PALACE

    THE SHORT STORIES

    01. A DREAM OF PASSION (Ad Astra, Toronto, 1986)
    02. THE DESECRATOR (Tor web-site, 2011)

  7. Anonymous says:

    One of my favorite Authors and series. If you like these, check out, Joe Abercrombie and his First Law series, my new favorite.

  8. mokin says:

    I’ve read all the Vlad books before this one, but none of the Khaavren Romances. Would my reading experience of Tiassa benefit from reading the Khaavren Romances trilogy first?

  9. T Nielsen Hayden says:

    See also: C. Sophronia Cleeber’s essay in The Viscount of Adrilankha.

  10. CheshireKitty says:

    I literally just finished Tiassa *last night*!

    And mokin, you don’t have to read the Vlad Taltos series to enjoy the Khaavren romances. I wish he would write more of them! They do rather get across the point that Dumas got paid by the word. ;)

  11. Serioli says:

    It always pleases me to see another Brust novel reviewed here

  12. Vnend says:

    Heh. Someone with a handle of ‘Serioli’ a Brust fan. Whodathunkit?

    Lobster, the descriptions of the beasts the great houses were based on have never quite matched the illustrations. “Kind of like a winged tiger” is probably as accurate as saying that a giraffe is kind of like a horse with a long neck. Yeah, but…

    I don’t recall ever reading anything by Brust about how close the various cover (and other) art has been to what he envisioned. And, in case you weren’t aware of it, authors rarely have any say on the cover art.

    WizarDru, I thought it was interesting that there was some internal commentary in that particular book pointing out that the culture/economy wasn’t ready for the ‘workers revolution’ being agitated. I still have not decided if that is the right amount or not enough meddling by the gods in the story. Either can be argued and I am not sure either one is right.

    I like the fact that Brust considers the economics of the Empire in building the stories. It adds depth to the world, which, if you are going to do 18 plus novels set in it, you are going to need. And you have to admit, the concept of some medieval genius getting a brainwave that includes some, but not quite enough, of Marxist theory to cause problems is a fantastic premise. The fact that the story is told at such a personal level is why it worked for me.

    Mokin: It has been long enough since I read them that the names were only vaguely familiar. I think you could read this one without reading the romances. The answering question is why the heck haven’t you read them yet? :-)

    (Yeah, yeah, I know. Some folks just cannot handle the style. For me it is like pitch. If someone tunes to something other than 440, it jars a bit at first. But as long as they are in tune to the pitch they chose, I can adjust and enjoy it. With the Khaavren stories, once I settle in to the style, they fly by just like the original Vlad stories. Absolutely worth reading, IMHO.)

    It looks like my wife finished Tiassa last night, I am looking forward to talking about it with her.

    • Lobster says:

      OK, fair enough. I know that cover artists don’t always read the book or get to speak with the artist (in fact I’ve heard they’re sometimes not allowed to communicate since the artist is invariably picky enough to slow down the process, which is understandable when you’re drawing their baby).

      • Vnend says:

        The only exceptions that come to mind are when the writer is also an artist and his artwork is used (Tolkien, for some editions of the Hobbit, possibly LotR) and one good story that explains a bit about how the publishing industry worked circa 1980-mumble (and probably still does, but TNH and Cory can speak to that a lot better than I can).

        Glen Cook was doing something in town and met a painter. They got to talking, and when the painter found out that Glen wrote fantasy he got excited and asked if Glen would be willing to let him read something that Glen was working on and send a Polaroid or two of paintings with the manuscript. Glen was kind of like, well, ok… And so they did.

        The editor didn’t like the paintings. But, the story goes, the picture was on his/her desk when the buyer for [XYZ Big Book Store Chain] came in to discuss purchases for the next period.

        “Yeah, [author A’s] last one did well, we’ll take fifteen thousand of that. Um, only 7500 of this new one. Oooo, and I’ll take ten thousand of anything with *that* on the cover.” Pointing at the painting.

        Which was how The Black Company (and the rest of the series) got its Keith Burdak cover art.

        (as I heard the story, more or less)

  13. Vnend says:

    Anonymous #22 wrote:

    “Also, bearers of Great Weapons are nearly immortal.”

    Insufficient data to support conclusion.

    The longest lived bearer of a Great Weapon that we know of is old, but ‘immortal’ is questionable.

    As for the other 4 bearers we know of so far (or that I can think of at the moment), all four are ‘young’ by standards of Dragaereans. And I believe we have proof that they can be killed, it is just harder to make it stick (as in, I don’t think we have seen it happen yet…)

    SPOILER, if you have not read everything Steve has written, well, what is your excuse? You’ll probably want to skip the rest of this comment.

    YOU ARE WARNED.

    I mean, just because someone remembers the foundation of the Empire doesn’t make them immortal.

    [Yeah, that’s a little cryptic. Still a spoiler.]

  14. Vnend says:

    Oh, and

    http://dreamcafe.com/words/2011/03/29/tiassa-spoilers/

    is where Steve says:

    “Here is where I’ll gleefully read posts from those who liked it and merrily skip posts from those who didn’t.”

    I have already posted a link to Cory’s post there.

  15. Anonymous says:

    as along time fan,I’ve read Brust’s work to my own enjoyment,funny sometimes,with insightful views on how to get threw this guy’s everyday life. always a good read

  16. Anonymous says:

    I think I was introduced to Stephen Brust by one of Cory’s reviews a year or two ago and I haven’t looked back. It’s great to have a new favourite author who has a big back catalogue fo me to catch up on, so I’m not just waiting for them to finish their next novel (like I am with Stross, Stephenson, McLeod, Doctorow etc. ;)

    I’ve yet to come up with a good way of explaining to my friends why they should try his books, other than ‘they’re really entertaining, and you’ll like them even if you don’t usually like fantasy novels’.

  17. T Nielsen Hayden says:

    Lobster @2, Brust’s animals are never just morphs of two or three real animals. The descriptions are always given in terms of their being “kind of like” this or that animal, as in “chreothas are kind of like foxes, but they spin largish webs to catch their prey.” Clearly, this is nothing like a fox as we know it, but describing it in those terms gives you some idea of its size and shape.

    It’s exactly analogous to the way the real-world hyrax is often described as being rodentlike, when in fact its closest relatives are elephants, dugongs, and manatees. (Almost no one describes the hyrax as “an extremely small, furry variety of elephant,” which strikes me as a waste of an opportunity to make the world a little stranger and more wonderful.)

    WizarDru @3, if you think politics and economics are separable from the other issues of life, you may understand some fantasy writers, but you don’t understand Steve Brust. If you don’t have much background knowledge, I recommend diving into the politics headfirst, and trusting that Steve will make them interesting. The same goes for the banking and finance in Orca, the industrial espionage in Jhegaala, and all the military stuff in Dragon.

    Mokin @4, I’m very fond of them myself, but not everyone enjoys the Khaavren Romances. If you’re the sort of reader who likes them, Tiassa will be deeper and funnier if you read them first.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Dragaereans aren’t immortal. What would an assassin do in a world of immortals?

    • Anonymous says:

      Dragaereans aren’t immortal. What would an assassin do in a world of immortals?

      True. Dragaerans age very, very slowly and can be converted to effectively immortal status by divine intervention (Sethra) or mostly immortal status by serious necromancy (Loraan).

      And the Emperor is mostly immortal (Mario cheated).

      Also, bearers of Great Weapons are nearly immortal.

  19. Anonymous says:

    This is NOT post number 18, since 17 posts is the ideal number.

    It’s the beginning of the second cycle of 17.

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