/ Cory Doctorow / 4 am Tue, Oct 17 2017
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  • Listen up: you really owe it to yourself to read 15 Vlad Taltos novels, seriously

    Listen up: you really owe it to yourself to read 15 Vlad Taltos novels, seriously

    I have been reading Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos novels since I was a pre-teen and singing their praises on Boing Boing since 2006, and with the occasion of the publication of Vallista, the fifteenth and nearly final volume in the series, I want to spend some time explaining to you why goddamnit you should really consider reading 15 books, get caught up, and finish this sucker with me, because if there was any justice in this world, the Vlad books would have a following to shame The Dark Tower at its peak.

    As noted, I've been reading Brust basically for as long as I've been able to think critically about novels and novel writing, following this series with absolute enthrallment and delight, and having just inhaled Vallista in a single go, I think I'm finally able to articulate some of the things that makes this such a reward for sustained attention.


    Firstly, these are sprightly novels. Though Brust is spinning a genuinely epic tale of civilization-spanning intrigue, informed by profound insight into politics and power, these are, at core, caper novels about a wisecracking assassin who is also a witch, and whose familiars, a pair of flying venomous lizards called "jhereg," are even funnier than Vlad, the series narrator. Brust is a great political thinker (he may be the person the wags had in mind when they observed that Marxists are the only fantasy writers who get the ratio of lords to vassals right), but he never allows the politics shot through these volumes to get in the way of their astonishing narrative energy. What I'm trying to say is: these are fun to read.


    But they're not just fun. They're also daring. Each volume does something that Brust has never done before. One book takes the form of annotations to a dry-cleaning bill (seriously!), another is framed around gathering ingredients for a recipe (likewise); another is a trio of multi-POV novellas that interlock in surprising, head-spinning ways. There are whodunnits, war novels, romances, heists, quests... And, with Vallista, now there is a haunted house novel to rival Gormenghast, The Fall of the House of Usher, or Lovecraft's He.

    I've followed other long-running series, like Pratchett's Discworld books. Unlike Pratchett, Brust keeps the focus on a single character, Vlad Taltos, and follows his development through book after book, as he quests to...well, that's an interesting question. A more obvious comparison is King's Black Tower books, which I followed for decades (only to be disappointed when the series finished with a wet fizzle of a cop-out), but whereas the Black Tower concerned itself with Roland, the eternal and unchanging hero, Vlad Taltos changes...a lot. He learns things, and then learns that those things were wrong. He changes for the better, and for the worse. As a study in character and struggle, these books are unlike anything I've read.

    It's not clear what Vlad is looking for. When we meet him in Jhereg, the first volume, he's a young assassin, a human in a kingdom of millennia-lived elves called Dragareans, who confine humans (whom they call "Easterners") to ghettos where they are oppressed and subject to brutalization and exploitation. A few books in, Vlad is in exile, but it's not clear he could ever clear his name -- or that he particularly wants to. The relationships he forms and then shatters are not necessarily redeemable (even the ones we root for), and the great powers moving around him always -- lords and emperors, gods and the things that created the gods -- have their own mysterious ends that he sometimes serves, but never much cares for.


    But Vlad is looking, living out a critical juncture in a civilization that Brust carefully brings into focus in these volumes, a civilization that is stuck in a great cycle of birth, decadence and rebirth, each epoch thousands of years long and beyond the emotional grasp of an Easterner like Vlad, though he is as much a part of the cycle as anyone else.


    Vallista is a haunted house novel, one that includes weird geometries that are like a cross between the delight of playing Zork for the first time and reading Heinlein's And He Built a Crooked House for the first time. It's got ghosts and treacherous wizards, decadent and mysterious necromancers, truculent butlers, and great unspoken secrets about dead children and the way they perished. It even has a monster.

    But more than that, it has the seeds of the final act of the Vlad books, the place where the vast civilization that Brust seems to know every corner of meets the long arc of Vlad's life and the many ways in which it has been scarred by irrevocable choices that left him and the people he (we!) loved in seemingly perpetual solitude.

    It's hard to love a series that is 15 books in, because you can't discuss it with the people around you unless you can convince them to read 15 books first. My wife is nearly there, I think (the involuntary gasps, laughs and the little shriek I gave out while finishing it in bed on Saturday may have tipped her over the edge at last). Will you join us? Here's the whole series. You can thank me later.

    Vallista [Steven Brust/Tor Books]

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