Thinking About Dragaera: Yendi

“Morrolan, how many Yendi does it take to sharpen a sword?”

He looked at me through slitted eyes.  “Tell me,” he said.

“Three.  One to sharpen the sword, and one to confuse the issue.”

Yendi was the second Dragaera book to be published, in 1984.  It takes place before the main chapters of Jhereg; Vlad has established himself as a Jhereg boss but is still relatively early in his career.

This was a tricky book to untangle.  Not that that’s surprising – it’s practically right there on the title page…

About yendis

The yendi is a snake with a slow-acting but deadly venom.  The Lyorn Records say that the yendi’s victims often don’t notice the bite until they suddenly die an hour later.

About Yendi

Yendi coils and strikes, unseen…

Little is known about the House of the Yendi.  The name of the House is a byword for subtle and intricate plots; those machinations appear to be the only identifying trait of the House.  The Yendi certainly aren’t going to make it easy for anyone else to notice them, because when you know there’s a Yendi about, then you can be assured that they’re up to something.

About Yendi

A neighboring Jhereg boss, Laris, encroaches on Vlad’s territory and incites a turf war.  Things escalate quickly (and expensively for both sides), and after surviving two other attempts on his life, Vlad is killed by the famous assassin duo “the Sword and the Dagger” – but not permanently.  He wakes up in Dzur Mountain, Sethra Lavode’s stronghold, and discovers that the assassins were also killed, and have also been brought to Dzur Mountain and revivified.

The Sword and the Dagger are an interesting pair.  As assassins, they are considered to be second only to Mario Greymist1Mario being the assassin who killed the Emperor before the Interregnum.  He is a legend among the Jhereg – and extremely expensive to hire..  The Sword is an ex-Dragon named Norathar e’Lanya, who turns out to potentially be the actual Dragon Heir (or would have been had she not left the House after she was supposedly shown to be a bastard).  The Dagger is Cawti2Those reading in chronological order may not already know that Cawti will soon be married to Vlad, but the publication order makes a will-they-won’t-they plot here pretty pointless., an Easterner woman with a background not unlike Vlad’s.  They quickly bond over their similarities and only pause briefly (to acknowledge that Cawti has returned their fee and dropped the job of ensuring Vlad’s death) on the way to commencing a romantic relationship.

Another unsuccessful assassination attempt later, Vlad decides that his survival of four different attempts on his life can’t be coincidence.  Meanwhile, Aliera’s interest in genetic studies (and her desire to not be the Dragon Heir) surfaces again, and her scan of Norathar reveals her to be a true Dragon and the rightful Heir.  Back at Castle Black, in the process of trying to put these pieces together, Vlad discovers that the Sorceress in Green (a perennial guest at Morrolan’s party) is a Yendi, and everything starts to come together once they know there must be Yendi machinations involved.

The plot turns out to be a collaboration between the Sorceress in Green and Sethra the Younger (a Dragon and apprentice of Sethra Lavode’s).  They wanted to insure that the Dragon Heir would be someone who would name Sethra the Younger as Warlord and start a war with the Easterners.  Norathar, Aliera, and Morrolan were ultimately the targets of the part of the plot that involved Vlad; Vlad himself and his entire operation was essentially collateral damage in the attempt to kill Norathar and discredit Aliera and Morrolan via their involvement in the Jhereg war3Though Vlad’s friendship with Aliera and Morrolan was part of the plan to draw them into the war in the first place..

Sethra Lavode takes care of punishing her apprentice.  Meanwhile, Aliera, Norathar, and Morrolan (along with Vlad and Cawti) take the usual Dragon approach towards the Sorceress in Green: killing her, revivifying her, and mind-probing her to get details of her other plots.  Before her death, though, Vlad extracts Laris’ location from her at the point of a Morganti knife, allowing him to wrap up the turf war with a direct strike to his opponent (and take over his territory and operation in the process).

The book closes with Vlad and Cawti visiting Vlad’s grandfather, asking for his blessing for their marriage.

The Yendi Thesis

To quote Vlad, “It is axiomatic that nobody but a Yendi can unravel a Yendi’s scheme.”  Previously in the same conversation – when he is talking with Morrolan immediately after discovering that the Sorceress in Green is a Yendi – he says, “Wherever you find a Yendi, you find a plot.  A devious plot.  Twisted, confusing, just the kind of thing we’re facing.”  Similarly, in Phoenix, Vlad (as the narrator) says that a Yendi’s definition of “civilized” behavior is “making sure no one ever knows exactly what you’re up to.”

To the extent that the Yendi have a guiding ethos at all, it seems to be conspiring to get what you want as subtly as possible – ideally without anyone else even realizing that you’re involved, let alone realizing that you’re benefiting from the things that happen as a result of your schemes.

The Yendi Antithesis

Morrolan replies to Vlad’s Yendi axiom with “Maybe I use different axioms”, and that is the core of the Yendi antithesis – a refutation of the arrogant assumption that nobody outside the House of the Yendi can figure out a Yendi’s machinations.  But it isn’t necessarily “unraveling” that Morrolan has in mind – if the Sorceress in Green’s scheme is the Gordian Knot, then Morrolan wants to be Alexander, cutting straight through the tangled mass of Yendi intrigue.  The problem with the Alexandrian solution, though, is that you have to know where the knot is before you can swing a sword at it, and it takes the protagonists most of the book just to positively identify the people behind the scheme.  Still, once that is done, Sethra axiomizes the Yendi antithesis in another way: “It is vain to use subtlety against a Yendi.”

Once again, the Dragon mode of thinking acts in opposition to the named House – where the Yendi incite confrontation between others to attain their ends, Dragons prefer to be right in the middle of the confrontation with swords in their hands.

Synthesis

Simply to reach the point where they can do something about the plot carried out by the Sorceress and Sethra the Younger, Vlad and his allies have to think like Yendi.  But the discovery of an actual Yendi in their midst is the key that allows them to finally put all the pieces together – the Yendi way of life proves to be somewhat self-defeating in this case.  And then the protagonists can largely shift into the Dragon mode to deal with the Yendi plot – apply sufficient force directly to the principals of the scheme, and watch it break apart.

Vlad’s solution to his own problems is a blend of the two approaches as well.  In the midst of the combat in which the Sorceress is cornered and killed, Vlad takes advantage of the conflict between the Dragons and the Sorceress (which is at this point basically being fought over Dragon honor) to extract some information from the Sorceress which he needs to accomplish his own ends; he then steps back and lets the rest of the battle proceed without him.  This is a typically Yendi approach to the situation.  On the other hand, armed with that information he goes personally to deal with Laris, killing him with his own hands (and presumably a knife) – whereas the Yendi seem to avoid getting their own hands dirty whenever possible.

Other interesting notes

Yendi coils and strikes, unseen

Fittingly, the lone Yendi in the novel stays hidden for most of the story.  Prior to the reveal of the Sorceress’ House at the end of chapter 14 (i.e. about 80% of the way through the book), the word “yendi” appears only three times:

  • In chapter 8, Vlad-as-narrator mentions that Sethra occasionally turns would-be heroes who attack her into yendi or jhegaala.
  • In chapter 13, when Vlad and Cawti are brainstorming about whether they were supposed to figure out that the attempts on his life weren’t genuine, Vlad remarks, “Come on, lover.  We aren’t Yendi.”
  • Just a few lines later, when Vlad is speculating on Laris’ intentions to figure out how to respond, Cawti replies, “Are you sure you aren’t part Yendi?”

Of these three occurrences, one refers to the actual animal and the other two are used rhetorically (though in a way that makes it clear to the observant reader that we’re starting to get close to the truth of the matter).  Nevertheless, for eighty percent of the novel, the novel’s namesake House remains hidden4Unless you know what to look for.  Vlad is introduced to the Sorceress in Green in Chapter 1 and refers to her as an Athyra.  Morrolan tries to correct him but gets cut off when Vlad suddenly needs to leave to deal with the incursion into his territory – resulting in Vlad going without that vital piece of information for another thirteen chapters.  If Morrolan had been able to finish his sentence, this would have been a shorter book – and a much less fun one..

Chronology and plot arc

  • In Jhereg, Vlad was already married to Cawti; in Yendi we see how they meet.  Their romance is fairly abrupt, but while it’s possible to interpret that as a failure to write credible romance on the part of the author, I see it as an indication of how isolated both Vlad and Cawti feel – both as Easterners among Dragaerans, and as assassins among society.  Is that a sufficient connection upon which to build a marriage?  We’ll see, soon enough.
  • In the denouement of the novel, Vlad folds Laris’ territory into his own; by the end of the book, he doesn’t have complete control over it, but he does by the start of Jhereg.  Parts of Dragon and Tiassa come between the end of Yendi and the beginning of Jhereg; we’ll see whether those books address any complications that come up as he’s consolidating his control over the area Laris used to own.

Next time

The next book in publication order is Teckla.  We’ll have a lot of politics to discuss, I suspect…

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Mario being the assassin who killed the Emperor before the Interregnum.  He is a legend among the Jhereg – and extremely expensive to hire.
2. Those reading in chronological order may not already know that Cawti will soon be married to Vlad, but the publication order makes a will-they-won’t-they plot here pretty pointless.
3. Though Vlad’s friendship with Aliera and Morrolan was part of the plan to draw them into the war in the first place.
4. Unless you know what to look for.  Vlad is introduced to the Sorceress in Green in Chapter 1 and refers to her as an Athyra.  Morrolan tries to correct him but gets cut off when Vlad suddenly needs to leave to deal with the incursion into his territory – resulting in Vlad going without that vital piece of information for another thirteen chapters.  If Morrolan had been able to finish his sentence, this would have been a shorter book – and a much less fun one.

Thinking About Dragaera: Jhereg

Jhereg was the first Dragaera novel to be published, in 1983.  Jhereg is the House of Vlad Taltos, the series’ primary protagonist, so it is naturally a good place to start.

This post will follow a format I intend to use, to some extent, for all of these posts.  I’ll provide some background information on the novel’s namesake (both animal and House), and then a synopsis of the story.  Most of the analysis will be around the thesis/antithesis/synthesis structure I outlined in the introductory post, but there will usually be some other things I think are interesting to note as well.

About jheregs

The jhereg is a small, winged reptile with two legs and a venomous bite. Despite their size, jheregs are about as intelligent as humans, thanks to some experimentation in the species’ past.  They are capable of doing their own hunting but prefer to scavenge when possible.

About Jheregs

Jhereg feeds on others’ kills…

The House of the Jhereg is practically synonymous with the criminal underworld of Dragaera.  The “Right Hand of the Jhereg”, or simply “The Organization”, is a criminal organization akin to the Mafia or Yakuza, and it is led by a small Council of about five people.  The Council oversees not only the House itself but also a wide variety of illegal activities – gambling, unlicensed prostitution, fencing stolen goods, and assassination being their primary trades.  In other books, the Organization’s scope of activities has been described as anything that the Empire either outlaws or taxes heavily.  They are also the only House in Dragaera in which a noble title can be purchased for money.

Accordingly, most Dragaerans’ opinions of Jheregs are low, stereotyping them (not unjustly) as untrustworthy criminals who thrive on illicit activity.  The House’s connection to their namesake animal is straightforward; jhereg are small but venomous reptiles largely surviving on the edges of other predators’ domains by feeding off carrion, while Jhereg are similarly lowly and also make their living by taking advantage of the waste and weakness of others.  Reptiles, and snakes in particular, are often seen to be metaphors for untrustworthiness, and the Jheregs’ connection to what is essentially a winged, legged snake is no exception.

The “Left Hand of the Jhereg” is the other primary organization within the House, and consists primarily (if not solely) of women who practice sorcery on a freelance or contract basis.  Contrary to the saying, the Left Hand often knows what the Right Hand is doing, because members of the Right Hand frequently hire members of the Left Hand as magical support staff for their various activities.

Just about every Jhereg we see in the series works for one of these two organizations, at least to some extent, with the majority of them belonging to the Right Hand1If there are Jhereg that aren’t at least somewhat involved with either the Right or Left Hand, I don’t remember them..  This does not prevent conflict within the House, though; while they all report up to the same people in the end, the lower-level members of the Organization are frequently engaged in turf wars or intrigue of one kind or another, each seeking to increase his scope of control in both territory and personnel.  Most of the Jheregs’ assassinations are in fact carried out against other Jheregs as part of those internal conflicts.

While criminal activity exists throughout the Dragaeran Empire, the bulk of the Jheregs’ activities (that we’re aware of so far) are focused on the Empire’s capital and largest city, Adrilankha.

About Jhereg

In Jhereg, we meet our protagonist for the first time.  Vlad Taltos is an Easterner living among Dragaerans; he is a Baronet of the House of the Jhereg, his father having purchased the title with forty years’ worth of savings from his restaurant.  Vlad despises Dragaerans both because of years of abuse at their hands as a child, and because he hated seeing his father wanting to become a Dragaeran despite the way they usually treated Easterners.

The prologue of Jhereg is the earliest narrative we have in Vlad’s life to date; it shows him venturing into the jungle west of Adrilankha to perform a ritual of witchcraft to summon a familiar.  Witchcraft is an Eastern form of magic, and Vlad learned it from his grandfather, despite his father’s disdain of anything to do with their homeland.  As a result of the ritual, Vlad acquires a jhereg egg from its mother, promising to provide the jhereg-to-be with fresh meat and friendship in exchange for its aid and wisdom.  That egg hatches into Loiosh, Vlad’s constant, wisecracking companion.

From there, we jump into the middle of Vlad’s career among the Jhereg.  He has a small criminal organization built up and has acquired a reputation as an assassin – and it is in that capacity that his services are requested in this book.  “The Demon”, one of the leaders of the Jhereg, hires Vlad to track down and kill another member of the Council, who recently took the Organization’s entire treasury of nine million gold Imperials2To put that number in perspective, in Taltos Vlad mentions that six Imperials is more than he would make in several weeks at the restaurant.  Another comparison that highlights the magnitude of the crime is the fee the Demon offers to Vlad for the assassination; while most hired killings cost somewhere from 1,500 to 4,000 gold, Vlad is paid 65,000 to take the job on..

It turns out that the thief, Mellar, has taken refuge in Castle Black – a floating castle and round-the-clock party owned and hosted respectively by Morrolan, a noble of the House of the Dragon (and a friend and employer of Vlad’s).  Mellar secured an invitation from Morrolan in exchange for the recovery of a stolen book.  Morrolan takes hospitality very seriously, and refuses to allow permanent harm3Thanks to the existence of sorcery that can resurrect the recently dead, Morrolan’s rules of hospitality does not forbid all violence, nor even all fatal violence.  But death can be made permanent either through fatal damage to the brain or spinal cord, or through the use of a soul-killing “Morganti” weapon, and it is such unrevivifiable murder that Morrolan will not permit to happen to his guests.  Uninvited guests, on the other hand, are fair game. to come to his guests while they are under his roof.

The bulk of the novel’s plot is occupied by figuring out how and why Mellar has committed this crime in the first place, and devising various schemes by which Vlad can enact Mellar’s death without violating Morrolan’s rules of hospitality.  Along the way, Vlad and his allies – and he has a surprising number of allies for the first book of a series – discover just how deep Mellar’s plot runs, and for how long he has been putting the pieces in place; Vlad also learns some disquieting things about himself.  Meanwhile, the Jhereg Organization, aware that Vlad’s friendship with Morrolan might prevent him from carrying out the job, attempts to murder Morrolan themselves to obviate the conflict of interest.

The Question

In my introductory post, I discussed the notion of a House’s “thesis” independently of any specific prompt.  There was an implicit question being asked, of course: “What does it mean to be a member of this House?”  We can ask more specific questions as well, though.  In this case, one particular question runs through the text: What is the proper way to kill someone?  This contains component questions of both motivation (why?) and method (how?).

The Jhereg Thesis

The Jhereg are not an entirely amoral group – they have a certain sense of propriety that forbids things like assassinating someone in their own home, involving the Empire in Jhereg activities (whether it’s reporting a crime or giving testimony), and so forth.  But beyond that, power among the Jhereg flows from the end of a sharp knife in a dark alley – or from a purse full of gold Imperials.  They have little use for the law, except to the extent that the criminalization of things like gambling and prostitution enables the Jhereg to profit off of them.

The Jhereg disdain for law and order, and their extralegal approach to problem-solving, comes through particularly strongly in Jhereg.  The Organization is a group of criminals who have become victims of a crime committed by one of their own, and to address it they turn to another of their own to commit another crime in turn.

Life is cheap among the Jhereg, but not completely valueless.  The Jhereg rarely kill someone – or pay for someone to be killed – for no reason at all, but acceptable reasons can include disputes over territory, being late with one’s loan payments, or simply disrespecting someone who is powerful enough to not fear retribution for the murder.  They’re flexible on method as well; the Jhereg rarely go in for poison or magic as an instrument of death, but that has more to do with pragmatism than philosophy.  A Jhereg assassin prefers their target’s first awareness of lethal danger to be the arrival of the killing blow – face-to-face fights are much less likely to get the job done.

The Jhereg Antithesis

The antithesis of the Jhereg viewpoint is essentially that of the House of the Dragon.  Law, honor, and traditions are paramount among Dragons, and of those three honor is the most important.

A Dragon would never stoop to killing someone for money – though disputes over honor are a perfectly valid reason to end someone’s life.  Still, Dragons have no particular qualms about conscripting an army of Teckla (and the occasional glory-seeking Dzur) and marching them against an enemy to die by the thousands, as long as there is some plausible military pretext4Analogies to modern-day geopolitics are completely warranted, but that’s a topic better addressed when we talk about Yendi.  On a strict numerical basis, Dragons are probably responsible for tens or even hundreds of times as many deaths as Jheregs are.

In addition to the difference in opinion around which motivations for killing someone are appropriate, Dragons also strongly disapprove of how Jheregs carry out their killings.  The notion of a knife in the dark is anathema to your typical Dragon; if a Dragon wants you dead, you’ll see them coming and you’ll at least have an opportunity to get a weapon into your hand.

The conflicts between the Jhereg and Dragon modes have caused wars between the two Houses in the past, and Morrolan’s refusal to violate his rules of hospitality to allow Vlad to kill Mellar nearly causes another one.  In fact, Morrolan is only convinced to help Vlad with his assignment at all when he understands the extent to which Mellar is taking advantage of him – and even then, he requires that Mellar’s murder be carried out without violating the hospitality he still extends to the thief.

Synthesis

In the end, the murder of Mellar is accomplished with both application of Jhereg subterfuge and adherence to Dragon rules.  The elaborate plan concocted by Vlad and his allies takes the Dragon hospitality rules within which Mellar is hiding and turns them back on him.  With a couple Morganti weapons and some sleight-of-hand, they trick him into believing that he has broken those rules himself.  Mellar attempts to flee, via teleport, with his two bodyguards – one of whom has, through the use of illusion, been replaced with Vlad himself.

Though this takes Mellar out of Morrolan’s protections and makes him fair game for the unrevivifiable assassination that the Organization has demanded, Vlad’s job isn’t easy from here.  Vlad takes out the other bodyguard, but Mellar recognizes Vlad for the threat he is, which leads them into a straight-up fight – hardly the preferred Jhereg approach.  Vlad is forced back into the Dragon mode again, fighting Mellar face-to-face in deadly combat, and Vlad cannot win that fight.

So instead, Vlad falls back on his House’s, and the novel’s, namesake animal.  Loiosh was left behind by the teleport, but Vlad performs an impromptu, modified version of the ritual with which he first bonded with Loiosh at the beginning of the book, casting his mind out again – and he is able to finish Mellar off thanks to the distraction provided by another jhereg5This jhereg, Rocza, is female, and becomes Loiosh’s mate at the end of the book after a brief, sibilant courtship.  It’s quite cute, really..

This synthesis of the Jhereg thesis and the Dragon antithesis doesn’t provide a definitive answer to the general question of the appropriate way to kill someone.  But for this particular case, it combines the Jhereg and Dragon opinions on the subject in a way that successfully navigates the perilous gap between the two Houses.

Other interesting notes

There are several other things I want to touch on briefly about Jhereg that don’t necessarily fit into the main synthesis discussion…

Chapter quotations

Each of the seventeen chapters is prefaced with a brief quotation.  I did not realize it at the time, but each of the quotations alludes somewhat to one of the seventeen Houses, this time in Cycle order.  In addition, the Epilogue also has a second Phoenix quotation, bookending Chapter 1’s “Success leads to stagnation, stagnation leads to failure” with “Failure leads to maturity, maturity leads to success” and reflecting the particular role that House has in the Dragaeran Cycle.

The Jhereg quote is “One man’s mistake is another man’s opportunity”, describing both the House’s general approach to profiting off the vices of others and the way in which Vlad is finally able to carry out his mission.

The Dragon quote is “There is no substitute for good manners – except fast reflexes”, reflecting both the House’s interest in propriety and honor and the speed with which they answer slights against said honor.

Chronology and overall plot arc

As mentioned previously, the book takes place somewhere in the middle of Vlad’s career in the Jhereg Organization (excluding the Prologue).  Despite being the first novel published, Jhereg feels much more like a mid-series novel, despite the time that it necessarily has to take setting up parts of the world that an actual mid-series novel can take for granted.  By this point in his life Vlad has many friends and allies, even beyond his Organization subordinates, his wife Cawti, and his familiar Loiosh.  Among them we see two highly-ranked Dragonlords (Aliera and Morrolan), a preternaturally talented sorcerer (Daymar), a gifted thief (Kiera), and the undead/immortal Enchantress of Dzur Mountain, Sethra Lavode.  We know little at this point about how an Easterner and a Jhereg came to have favorable relationships with such illustrious Dragaerans, though Vlad does allude to some previous exploits that we learn about in more detail in later books.  He also has a magical artifact of some uniqueness – Spellbreaker, an eighteen-inch length of gold chain that cancels any sorcery it comes into contact with.

Despite all of those benefits with which Vlad begins the story, the thing that jumped out at me the most as a “middle-of-the-series” plot point was the revelation Aliera makes about Vlad’s soul.  She states that reincarnation of Dragaeran souls is known to be a fact.  She then explains that in her past life, some two hundred thousand years ago, she was a sibling of Kieron the Conqueror, founder of the Dragaeran Empire.  Further, she and Kieron had another brother, Dolivar, who betrayed Kieron and also founded the House of the Jhereg – and she reveals that Vlad is the reincarnation of that soul.  This throws Vlad into a considerable amount of turmoil, as the course of his life up to this point had been based on his hatred of Dragaerans (stemming from repeated abuse from Dragaerans when he was younger); to discover now that he is in some ways Dragaeran himself is not easy for him to handle.

In most long-running fantasy series, this would be the sort of shocking discovery that a character would make as a turning point of a later book in the series.  I had forgotten that particular plot point after nearly a decade away from Dragaera – though I hadn’t forgotten Vlad’s general hatred of Dragaerans – and both the impact of it to Vlad’s character and the timing of the revelation were surprising to me.  With what I do recall of later books, though, I recognize this as one of the early indications we readers get of the extent to which Brust will challenge expectations and play with fantasy tropes throughout the series.

Next time

Coming up next is the second book in the series: Yendi. Plots within plots…

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. If there are Jhereg that aren’t at least somewhat involved with either the Right or Left Hand, I don’t remember them.
2. To put that number in perspective, in Taltos Vlad mentions that six Imperials is more than he would make in several weeks at the restaurant.  Another comparison that highlights the magnitude of the crime is the fee the Demon offers to Vlad for the assassination; while most hired killings cost somewhere from 1,500 to 4,000 gold, Vlad is paid 65,000 to take the job on.
3. Thanks to the existence of sorcery that can resurrect the recently dead, Morrolan’s rules of hospitality does not forbid all violence, nor even all fatal violence.  But death can be made permanent either through fatal damage to the brain or spinal cord, or through the use of a soul-killing “Morganti” weapon, and it is such unrevivifiable murder that Morrolan will not permit to happen to his guests.  Uninvited guests, on the other hand, are fair game.
4. Analogies to modern-day geopolitics are completely warranted, but that’s a topic better addressed when we talk about Yendi
5. This jhereg, Rocza, is female, and becomes Loiosh’s mate at the end of the book after a brief, sibilant courtship.  It’s quite cute, really.

Thinking About Dragaera: Introduction

I’m rereading Steven Brust’s Dragaera series; it’s been something like eight years since last time I read any of these, and I think there are about four books in the series that I haven’t read yet.  On this reread, though, I’m paying more attention to how the series is written, and specifically to a pattern I’ve noticed.  So, I’m writing a series of blog posts to capture my thoughts about each of the books in turn.

But first, we’ll start with some general notes, as well as some reference material I’d like to keep handy.

(Spoiler alert: Because I’m doing a lot of comparing/contrasting between books, and because the internal chronology of the books is somewhat mixed up, I can’t guarantee that I will avoid spoiling anything from books beyond the one I’m currently discussing.  Sorry.)

The Books, the World, and Their Structure

The Dragaera books include the Vlad Taltos series (generally considered to be the “main” series, the first and longest-running part), the Khaavren Romances (a pastiche of Dumas’ Three Musketeers books set hundreds of years before the Taltos series), and Brokedown Palace, a stand-alone novel set in a kingdom adjacent to Dragaera and only loosely connected to the rest of the books in the series.  For now, I’ll primarily be discussing the Taltos books – though the Khaavren Romances will get their moment, I promise you.

Certain aspects of the cosmology of Dragaera, and other parts of the series’ worldbuilding, inform the structure of both the entire Taltos series and of the individual books.  Primary among these are the seventeen Dragaeran Houses (each named after an animal whose traits the members of the House are supposed to share), and the Cycle that defines the order in which those Houses take the throne of the Dragaeran Empire.  Seventeen is as a result an auspicious number for Dragaerans – and each book in the Taltos series has seventeen chapters.  (Some also have prologues, epilogues, and/or interludes, but there are always seventeen numbered chapters.)

Apart from the chronologically-first (well, mostly) Taltos and the planned final book The Final Contract, the books in the Taltos series are also each named after one of the seventeen Houses, though not in the same order as the Cycle.  Nor does the publication order of the books match the internal chronology – In fact, trying to put the Taltos books into any specific chronological order is difficult because some individual books jump around on the timeline substantially.

The Seventeen Theses

The House name given to each of the books isn’t just a matter of having a convenient pool of names to draw from.  Each of the books thus named has at least one member of that House involved with the main plot of the book.  But beyond that, the plot, themes, and general flavor of each such book also reflect upon the qualities, attributes, values, and viewpoints of the respective House.  Taken together, I will refer to those things as the thesis for each House.  A House’s thesis informs nearly everything about the organization and activities of the House and the lives of its individual members – or at least those considered to be representative of (or stereotypical of) the House.  For example, the Teckla thesis includes qualities of cowardice and powerlessness, and a general viewpoint of keeping one’s head down and not challenging authority.

In the Hegelian fashion, one can also conceive of a House’s antithesis – the qualities, values, etc. in opposition to those of the House.  So the antithesis to the Teckla might include bold and powerful action, seeking to challenge the status quo and elevate oneself above one’s current situation.  (Those of you who have already read Teckla might recognize where I’m going with this.)  Not everything can be so cleanly negated, so sometimes an antithesis might be an inversion of those values rather than a direct refutation of them.  I believe that each book also contains its namesake House’s antithesis in some way.

And of course, where we have a thesis and an antithesis, we must eventually have a synthesis.  The Wikipedia page on thesis/antithesis/synthesis says that the synthesis “solves the conflict between the thesis and antithesis by reconciling their common truths”.  My supposition is that the conflict between the opposing thesis and antithesis is the core conflict of the book (or is at least a component of it), and the synthesis that solves that conflict is similarly involved in the climax and resolution of the book.

So, to sum up my central argument: each House-named book in the series revolves around a conflict between the values, qualities, and/or viewpoints of the named House (the House’s thesis) and an opposing set of values (the antithesis), and the synthesis of those two positions provides a climactic resolution to the conflict.  We’ll see whether that holds up for each of the books – like I said, a few of the books I haven’t read at all, and it’s been years since I’ve read the rest.

Attentive readers will have noticed that my argument leaves out Taltos (as well as the eventual series finale The Final Contract).  Vlad Taltos himself is a character born of conflict and contradiction – between Easterner and Dragaeran, between the hatred he feels for Dragaerans as a result of anti-Easterner prejudice and the Dragaeran identity he has adopted, and… well, we’ll get to that.  We might need to adjust the argument a little bit, but I suspect Taltos is going to revolve around a conflict of values and that conflict’s resolution as well.

Upcoming Posts

I’ll be going into each of the books in more detail, starting with Jhereg in my next post.  I’ll go mostly in publication order, though I’m going to handle all three works (five books) in the Khaavren Romances together (rather than interspersing them with the Taltos books according to publication dates), and I make no guarantees about when or whether I’ll discuss Brokedown Palace (as the fact that it is set in the same world as the rest of the Dragaera books is nearly the only thing connecting it to the other books).

For each of the Taltos books, I’ll talk about what we know about the House that the book is named after (and its namesake animal), and try to summarize the House’s thesis.  From there I’ll discuss how the thesis, and corresponding antithesis, inform the plot, structure, and themes of the book (and the other framing/structural elements that the book uses as well).  Some of the books have some other specifically interesting aspects to them as well; we’ll discuss those as they arise.

So, I’ll start off with a discussion of Jhereg shortly.

In the meanwhile, the rest of this post is mostly reference material for aspects of the series that are better discussed all in one place than spread out across the per-book posts.

 


 

The Races

Dragaerans, the people of the Dragaeran Empire, are similar to what most fantasy readers think of as “elves” – tall, lacking facial hair, with a typical life span of multiple thousands of years.  They think of themselves as “humans”, and refer to what the typical reader would recognize as humans (shorter, capable of facial hair, lifespans in the 60-70 year range) as “Easterners”.  The Easterners, for their part, think of themselves as “humans” and refer to their long-lived neighbors as either “Dragaerans” or occasionally “elfs”.  There are a couple other races mentioned – the Serioli and the Jenoine – but beyond the occasional passing reference, we don’t know much about them in the early part of the series.

Vlad Taltos is an Easterner by ancestry, but his father tried hard to assimilate into the Dragaeran culture in which they lived.  Vlad’s grandfather, on the other hand, retained his Easterner culture despite living in Dragaera.  Vlad’s upbringing was full of conflict and tension between those two cultural pressures, as we’ll see in more detail in the individual books.

The Houses

We’ll be referring to this list a lot – this poem, included at the beginning of The Book of Jhereg (the omnibus edition containing the first three novels), lists the seventeen Houses in the order of the Cycle and provides a little bit of flavor for what each of them stands for.  I’ll describe each House in more detail as the appropriate book comes up, but some of them we get a strong sense for early in the series (e.g. Jhereg, Dragon, Dzur, Teckla, Athyra, Orca) while others remain a mystery for longer (e.g. Chreotha, Jhegaala, Tsalmoth, Tiassa, and of course I have to put Yendi on the “mystery” list even though Yendi is the second book in the series).

Phoenix sinks into decay
Haughty dragon yearns to slay.
Lyorn growls and lowers horn
Tiassa dreams and plots are born.
Hawk looks down from lofty flight
Dzur stalks and blends with night.
Issola strikes from courtly bow
Tsalmoth maintains though none knows how.
Vallista rends and then rebuilds
Jhereg feeds on others’ kills.
Quiet iorich won’t forget
Sly chreotha weaves his net.
Yendi coils and strikes, unseen
Orca circles, hard and lean.
Frightened teckla hides in grass
Jhegaala shifts as moments pass.
Athyra rules minds’ interplay
Phoenix rise from ashes gray.

There are also graphical versions of the Cycle, of which this rendering appears to be one of the more canonical.

The Books

From the Wikipedia page on Steven Brust, as of April 2016:

Publication Order

I’ll link each of my book posts here as I write them.

  1. Jhereg (1983)
  2. Yendi (1984)
  3. Teckla (1987)
  4. Taltos (1988)
  5. Phoenix (1990)
  6. Athyra (1993)
  7. Orca (1996)
  8. Dragon (1998)
  9. Issola (2001)
  10. Dzur (2006)
  11. Jhegaala (2008)
  12. Iorich (2010)
  13. Tiassa (2011)
  14. Hawk (2014)
  15. Vallista (forthcoming)

Chronological Order

  1. Jhereg (prologue)
  2. Taltos
  3. Dragon (main chapters)
  4. Yendi
  5. Dragon (interludes)
  6. Tiassa (part 1)
  7. Jhereg (main chapters)
  8. Teckla
  9. Phoenix
  10. Jhegaala
  11. Athyra
  12. Orca
  13. Issola
  14. Dzur
  15. Tiassa (part 2)
  16. Iorich
  17. Tiassa (part 3)
  18. Vallista
  19. Hawk

Houses without namesake books (as of April 2016)

  • Lyorn
  • Tsalmoth
  • Chreotha

2016 Reading List

This is a record of everything I’ve read for the first time in 2016, with the new-for-2016 work separated out so I can identify Hugo-eligible works.  (See also my 2015 reading list.)  As usual, the bolded works are the ones that I plan to at least consider for inclusion on my nominating ballot.


2016 Novels (at least 40,000 words):

  • Javelin Rain, Myke Cole
  • Chaos Choreography, Seanan McGuire

2016 Novellas (17,500 to 40,000 words):

  • The Devil You Know, K.J. Parker
  • Lustlocked, Matt Wallace

2016 Novelettes (7,500 to 17,500 words):

2016 Short Stories (less than 7,500 words):


Non-2016 works read in 2016:

 

Review: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is Lois McMaster Bujold’s latest novel of the Vorkosigan Saga, and it is one of my recent favorites from the series.  It is also practically impossible to talk about without discussing plot details from earlier in the series – this is perhaps the least stand-alone Vorkosigan book yet, steeped as it is in the history of its characters.  So, stop reading now if you haven’t at least finished Cryoburn, the end of which I will be spoiling shortly.

I’ll also be discussing Gentleman Jole’s plot in more detail a little later, but I’ll warn you before I get into anything that isn’t apparent within the first chapter or two of the book.  Ready?  Here we go.

Cryoburn was one of my least favorite books in the series, but its ending makes it hugely important: its themes of handling mortality and death are capped off by Miles learning of the death of his father, Aral Vorkosigan, who has stood astride Barrayaran history like a colossus for the last forty years.  Aral served as Admiral, Regent, and Prime Minister of Barrayar, as well as Count Vorkosigan, and Miles’s entire life had been lived under that shadow.  But naturally, Miles is far from the only one to be affected by Aral’s death.  Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen examines the echoes of Aral’s life and the shape of the hole he left in his passing by returning to the viewpoint character that started off the entire series, and perhaps the only person who grokked Aral in fullness: Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, Aral’s widow and the Vicereine of Sergyar.

Cordelia isn’t the only protagonist, though.  The narrative flows relatively fluidly between her and the other main character of the story, Admiral Oliver Jole.  (Jole was first introduced in The Vor Game, though I had honestly forgotten about his existence until this book.)  And as not only an old friend of the Vorkosigans but also the senior Barrayaran military officer in Sergyar space, the former Viceroy’s passing left a hole both personal and professional in Jole’s life as well.  Aral has been dead for three years by now, but his ghost is essentially the third main character of the book.

(And here is where the spoilers for the latest book begin.  You have been warned.)

In fact, Jole’s relationship with the Vorkosigans is much more profound than we had been able to see from Miles’ point of view in The Vor GameGentleman Jole opens with Jole in his role as Admiral greeting Vicereine Cordelia upon her return to Sergyar space, and they arrange for a more unofficial reunion – whereupon the reader learns that Jole was, for many years, effectively the third person in the Vorkosigan’s marriage.  And Cordelia has a proposal for him: she is going to use some frozen gametes to have some more daughters, and offers her former co-spouse the use of her “eggshells” (i.e. enucleated ova) and Aral’s X-chromosome-bearing gametes so that Jole could have sons by Aral.

Cordelia’s return to Jole’s life, her offer, and the emotions redeveloping between them naturally turn his life upside down (in a way that only entanglements with Vorkosigans can), and the bulk of the novel is the two of them navigating the new opportunities that they see in front of them and the memories they have behind them.  The story is, at heart, a romance; it is clear well before the midpoint that Cordelia and Jole will rekindle their relationship, but the questions of how and for how long remain open.

The structure and setting of this book – a romance between Cordelia and a Barrayaran admiral taking place on and above the planet Sergyar – mirror that of Shards of Honor, the very first book of the series, and in that way I see Gentleman Jole as a bookend to the series, wrapping up the story of Cordelia and Aral with a bow and a happily-ever-after (at least to the extent that Aral can get such an ending posthumously).

Which leads me to the question: is this the end of the Vorkosigan Saga?  It very well could be.  If so, I found it an extremely satisfying one, both structurally for the series and as a story in its own right.  Cordelia Vorkosigan is one of my favorite characters – not only in this series, but across all of science fiction – and she deserves all the happiness that this ending gives her.

My 2015 Hugo Nominations

See also my 2015 reading list for all the fiction I chose from.  Nominations are in no particular order (though mostly in the order in which I read them).

Best Novel

  • The Flux, Ferrett Steinmetz
  • Apex, Ramez Naam
  • Seveneves, Neal Stephenson
  • Karen Memory, Elizabeth Bear
  • The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson

Best Novella

  • Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Kai Ashante Wilson
  • Binti, Nnedi Okorafor
  • The Last Witness, K. J. Parker
  • “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn”, Usman T. Malik
  • Envy of Angels, Matt Wallace

Best Novelette

  • “Fabulous Beasts”, Priya Sharma

Best Short Story

  • “Variations on an Apple”, Yoon Ha Lee
  • “Some Gods of El Paso”, Maria Dahvana Headley
  • “Damage”, David D. Levine
  • “Oral Argument”, Kim Stanley Robinson
  • “Schrödinger’s Gun”, Ray Wood

Best Related Work

  • Writing Excuses, Season 10, Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells
  • The Wheel of Time Companion, Robert Jordan, Harriet McDougal, Alan Romanczuk, Maria Simons

Best Graphic Story

  • Schlock Mercenary: Delegates and Delegation, Howard Tayler
  • Gunnerkrigg Court, Tom Siddell
  • Erfworld, Rob Balder, Xin Ye, Laura Ahonen
  • Order of the Stick, Rich Burlew

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)

  • Inside Out
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)

Best Editor (Long Form)

  • Marco Palmieri
  • Beth Meacham
  • Lee Harris
  • Joe Monti
  • Harriet McDougal

Best Professional Editor (Short Form)

  • Ellen Datlow
  • Ann VanderMeer
  • Liz Gorinsky
  • Beth Meacham
  • Carl Engle-Laird

Best Professional Artist

Best Semiprozine

Best Fanzine

Best Fancast

Best Fan Writer

Best Fan Artist

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

  • Andy Weir (for The Martian)

Remaining categories to be filled in soon!

2015 Reading List

This is a record of everything I’ve read for the first time in 2015 (or in 2016 catching up on 2015 stories, marked with *).  I’ll update this post as I read more things!

In order to eventually create my Hugo nominating ballot for the year and help others find things they might like enough to nominate as well, I’ve separated out science fiction or fantasy published in 2015 into its own sections according to Hugo category.  Bolded entries are ones I enjoyed enough to recommend to others as potentially Hugo-worthy work, and I’ve also linked to the Amazon reviews I’ve written where applicable.


 

2015 Novels (at least 40,000 words):

  • Gemini Cell, Myke Cole
  • Flex and The Flux, Ferrett Steinmetz (review of The Flux)
  • State Machine, K.B. Spangler (review)
  • Belt Three, John Ayliff
  • Apex, Ramez Naam
  • Serpentine, Cindy Pon
  • Greek Key, K.B. Spangler
  • Seveneves, Neal Stephenson
  • Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie
  • Karen Memory, Elizabeth Bear*
  • Aftermath, Chuck Wendig*
  • The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson*
  • Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, Lois McMaster Bujold* (review)
  • The End of All Things, John Scalzi (author declines Hugo consideration)
  • Sword, Amy Bai
  • Pocket Apocalypse, Seanan McGuire
  • The Just City, Jo Walton*
  • Unsung Villains, Missy Meyer*

2015 Novellas (17,500 to 40,000 words):

2015 Novelettes (7,500 to 17,500 words):

2015 Short Stories (less than 7,500 words):


 

Non-2015 works read in 2015:

  • The Lives of Tao and The Deaths of Tao, Wesley Chu
  • Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry, D.B. Jackson
  • Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie
  • The Adventures of Amir Hamza, Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdulla Bilgrami, tr. Musharraf Ali Farooqi (abandoned)
  • Nine Goblins, T Kingfisher
  • Worm, Wildbow (in progress)
  • Libriomancer and Codex Born, Jim Hines
  • Vicious, V.E. Schwab
  • Blood Magic, GatewayGirl
  • Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal
  • Kensei and The Devil, You Say, Jeremy Zimmerman
  • The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison
  • Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
  • Dead to Me, Mary McCoy
  • The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu, tr. Ken Liu
  • The Dark Between the Stars, Kevin J. Anderson (abandoned)
  • Lock In, John Scalzi
  • The Rhesus Chart, Charles Stross
  • Velveteen vs. The Junior Super-Patriots and Velveteen vs. The Multiverse, Seanan McGuire
  • Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson
  • The complete Merchant Princes series, Charles Stross
  • We Could Be Villains, Missy Meyer
  • Helen of Sparta, Amalia Carosella
  • Ready Player One, Ernest Cline
  • The Martian, Andy Weir
  • “As Good As New”, Charlie Jane Anders
  • “The End of the End of Everything”, Dale Bailey
  • “Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch”, Kelly Barnhill
  • “Sleep Walking Now and Then”, Richard Bowes
  • “Daughter of Necessity”, Marie Brennan
  • “Brisk Money”, Adam Christopher
  • Nexus and Crux, Ramez Naam
  • Fudoki, Kij Johnson
  • Save the Cat, Blake Snyder
  • Jumpstart Your Novel, Mark Teppo

 

I LIVE

I’ve decided to start doing some long-form blogging, and I’m going to repurpose Pyrlogos to do so.  The comics won’t be going away, but the Comicpress theme will, and I’ll be editing the posts to include image links to comics (or whatever I need to do to make them appear reasonably in the archives).

Just so you know.  Changes inbound.  See you on the proverbial flipside…

I’ve been putting this off.

It’s been hard to figure out how to approach the subject; I’m still not quite sure just how “done” I am with Pyrlogos I am right now.  The world still interests me; the story still interests me; the characters still won’t get out of my head.  But I’ve been pretty deeply unsatisfied with the way I’ve written the story so far, and trying to figure out how to address that has been one of the things I was hoping for a few months to resolve so I could move on with the comic.  But it’s not happening, and my immediate priorities have moved on to other things, and it’s time I admit that Pyrlogos is essentially dead at this point.

I’m not done with Pyrlogos, as a whole – but I’m not really convinced I’m capable of telling the story as a serial comic at this point.  I hope to pick up the project again some day, in some incarnation or another, and when I do I’ll be posting about it here.  But for now, well, I don’t have any plans to continue it in its current state.

Thanks for reading, and sorry for leaving things like this.

Page 030: Down the Hill

Apologies for the delay.  I spent November working on plotting (during National Novel Writing Month), and though I’ve had this sketched since late October I didn’t get it together enough to even ink it until a couple weeks ago.

The new year will likely bring some changes in the way I handle Pyrlogos – hopefully for the better.  We’ll see how things go.