Friday, July 29, 2011

A Series I Nearly Missed – Vlad Taltos and Jhereg

I've read quite a few fantasy novels in the last five months, and most of them were things that I'd intended to get around to. Other works by authors I already liked (Brandon Sanderson's stuff in particular,) books that had come highly recommended to me by multiple sources (Patrick Rothfuss' Name of the Wind,) or things I'd promise myself I'd get around to when I had the time. Stephen Brust's Vlad Taltos novels are something else. They've been around forever, yet I can't remember ever hearing of them specifically before very recently, when a friend described them at a party and sold me on them with his summary. I can vaguely recall now having seen “Vlad Taltos” or some horrible misspelled variant thereof in online RPGs over the years, but the name meant nothing to me at the time. I'd really been missing out.

Almost 30 years since this first got published, and I heard about it this summer.

Funny thing is, the description of the series almost killed my interest in it with a single phrase: “The main character is an assassin.” There's been a whole lot of mediocre fantasy written from the perspective of an assassin, and not a whole lot of “new” there. When I found that the series was first published in 1983, I discarded this objection. After all, stories from a hired killer in a fantasy world had to have been new once, and there had to be an original template for all those later bad novels to imitate. It just may have been Steven Brust's series. Thirteen of a planned nineteen novels in the series have been published to date, the most recent (Tiassa,) just this year. I have a great deal of faith that this series will be finished in the author's lifetime, as his record for publishing has been rock-solid, and each book has a lighter pagecount than the 800-1000+ page epics we've seen from other popular fantasy authors.

What makes the world, and the characters so special? The titles of the books refer to the Great Houses of the Dragaeran Empire, each of which is named after an animal or other fantastic creature. Dragaerans are like elves, except in addition to being beautiful, graceful and living thousands of years, they are also mostly between nine and eleven feet tall and built like linebackers. Vlad, the main character, isn't one of those. He's a human, or “Westerner” as they are called in polite society. That society, by the way, barely acknowledges humans beyond that, they are a minority, put-upon and disenfranchised. What makes Vlad so interesting is that he manages to be a powerful figure in the games of the powerful and ancient people that really run things.

Vlad himself. Killer. Magician. Husband. Snappy Dresser.
This great piece of fanart by ShardGlass over at DeviantART.

The novels do a bit of chronological jumping about, showing things in the order which the author intends bits and pieces to be revealed. Vlad is, essentially, a hitman in House Jhereg, the house named after a scavenger lizard-type beast who stoop so low as to allow Westerners to purchase titles of nobility. House Jhereg is combination thieves guild, assassins guild and local Mafia. The early books play out almost like detective stories, only instead of bringing the perpetrator at the center of the mystery to justice, he takes a knife in the throat. Sometimes, killing is only done as a warning. Magical resurrection is expensive, but relatively easy, so you murder someone to send a message. If they really anger you, you make sure they can't come back.

The series manages to drop very subtle threads that will be expanded, explained or paid off in later works, but even with all the groundwork and foreshadowing, each book stands on its own. They are fairly quick reads, and each story is self-contained enough that even jumping into the middle of the series wouldn't leave a reader lost. The larger tale told over the course of the series is a gigantic puzzle, there to be revealed a bit at a time to those who have read every book in the larger narrative, but subtle enough that it isn't distracting to those who haven't kept up with every little thread in each of the thirteen books. Brust's style is heavy on plot and character development, with exposition neatly spread out so the massive amount of worldbuilding he's done neither overwhelms or bores the reader.

Jhereg, the first novel, shows a point in Vlad's career where he is established in his house, has performed many successful jobs in his line of “work,” and reveals a key point in his life. In addition to some small proficiency in Dragaeran sorcery and skill in Western-style fencing, Vlad practices witchcraft, a form of magic little known and practiced mostly by humans. A side benefit to practicing obscure magics, in addition to people typically not bothering to defend against them, is that a ritual can be performed to gain a practitioner a familiar. In Vlad's case, his personal familiar matches his House, as he has called a jhereg named Loiosh who frequently engages in telepathic wisecracking at his master's expense.

Wikipedia had the most recent and least eccentric image I could find of the author.

The methodical pacing of the planning of seemingly impossible assassinations, along with the legwork and research required to both get at the target and figure out what is really going on is a great read. Even if someone doesn't want to commit to all nineteen books, the individual works are short enough that reading one while on a break from a series containing longer novels can work as a change of pace or palate cleanser. I wouldn't make the mistake of suggesting that shorter means “light” in terms of substance or content, however. Since the plot is focused on a single character rather than a large ensemble, the story can provide depth on par with Martin or Sanderson in a much smaller book.

Getting access to all of the books currently available will take a little planning, as there aren't official ebook editions of some of the earlier novels. This is an oversight that I hope Amazon will correct in the future. I've put the rest of Vlad Taltos and Malazan on the backburner for the moment, however, as I have a review coming of the debut novel of one of this blog's readers. I hope to finish that work over the weekend to be ready for a review at some point next week. Am I alone in never having heard of the Vlad Taltos books? Let me know.
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Bard said...

Funny, I didn't know about this series either until reading your post. Sounds very promising though.

Alpha said...

Nope, never heard of him.

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear you liked them. (If you want to read more, there's also a short story up on the Tor website.)

I hadn't heard of the series myself until I picked up "Dragon" (bk. 8) on a lark from my library's used book sale a few years back, and then someone dropped off the all but one of the first nine a few months back, and they finally percolated to the top of my reading stack starting in April. Now I've become a Vlad Taltos evangelist. It's some of the best fantasy I've read in *years*, and unlike many very-long-running fiction series, the quality just keeps on coming. (At least, so far; I'm still a few books behind.)

And this is one series where I keep finding myself truly *caring* about what happens to Vlad, Loiosh, and the other protagonists as if they were personal friends--happy for them when things go well, sad for them when bad things happen--which is something that almost never happens for me with fiction. And the mental repartee is always spot-on perfect.

Jay said...

Vlad is working that smoldering stare for the lizards, i mean the ladies. :)

sounds interesting, but 19 books is a bit much for me. :D

Anonymous said...

One of the nice features of the series is that, while there is an over-arching story, each book really is self-contained, with a beginning, middle, and end. So you can read just the first one or two, or [almost] any random volume and then stop--without feeling like you only got a tiny piece of a story with no closure (I'm looking at *you*, GRRM).

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