October 23rd, 2016 — News
“Only Dragons kill like that, and Dzur, I suppose.”
“You’re right,” I said. “Dragons and Dzur. And also Orca, if there’s a profit in it.”
Orca is the seventh Vlad Taltos book, published in 1996. It takes place the year after the events of Athyra; Vlad is still traveling with Savn, with hopes of curing the mental trauma Savn suffered during the previous book.
Orca circles, hard and lean.
The House of the Orca is named after the Dragaeran orca, which is (as far as I can tell) the same as the Earthly species. Orcas are often stereotyped as being all about sailing ships, whether as merchants or as military. However, this book demonstrates that Orca is also the house of commerce and business. Besides shipping concerns, Orcas own banks, real estate holdings, insurers, and various other companies whose focus is on the acquisition and manipulation of wealth, rather than its creation.
As Vlad has noted previously, the hierarchy of the House’s nobility is connected directly to naval ranks. This is despite the fact that many of the Orcas managing their landside operations rarely if ever set foot on a ship, and some of the wealthiest Orca seem to take pride in living far inland.
Orca is a doubly-nested narrative. The outer frame is a conversation between Vlad’s estranged wife, Cawti, and Vlad’s oldest ally, Kiera the Thief. This conversation appears as a few interludes between the main chapters, plus a pair of bracketing letters from Kiera to Cawti. The inner frame, making up the majority of the story, is from Kiera’s point of view. Within that frame, Vlad’s own narration appears a few different times as he describes various events to Kiera.
Vlad has brought Savn to a sorceress near Northport (named Hwdf’rjaanci, which Vlad immediately gives up on pronouncing; Hwdf’rjaanci says to call her “Mother”). She was recently informed that the land on which she lives is to be sold, and she agrees to help Savn in exchange for Vlad’s help in keeping her home. After working through multiple records of ownership, for both the land itself and for the succession of shell companies that appear to own it, Vlad determines that the ultimate owner of the land is a company named Northport Securities, with an address in the Fyres Building. He has to work through a couple more shell companies in person (conveniently located in the same building) before discovering that the whole structure was owned by Fyres himself, a recently (and mysteriously) deceased Orca baron. Fyres’ holdings are being sold off to cover his debts. The banks he owned (including the one at which Mother had deposited her savings) have also closed up.
At Vlad’s request (and in exchange for details about the story), Kiera steals ledgers from Fyres’ estate; from them, Vlad learns that Fyres’ entire organization was basically fraudulent. Kiera talks to a Jhereg contact named Stony, who explains that other than shipbuilding, Fyres’ main business was these “paper castles”. Fyres’ fortunes have collapsed twice before, but people kept loaning him money because he was so good at self-promotion and appearing wealthy and successful even when he was deeply in debt.
Vlad, in disguise, tries to get information from the Imperial investigation into Fyres’ death and learns that the investigation is itself being falsified; Vlad and Kiera pursue their own investigation from there. In the meanwhile, Mother works on fixing Savn’s mind, and he starts to show signs of improvement – most clearly when Vlad is injured, and again when Loiosh is, and Savn responds enough to tend to each of them.
Fyres’ apparent worth of sixty million Imperials was almost entirely fraudulent. He had borrowed money to make himself appear wealthy so that he could borrow more money. His banks were making risky loans because it made their ledgers look good, which ultimately made them look more prosperous and convinced more people to deposit their money there. As a result, Fyres was in debt to several large banks and some powerful Jhereg, as well as to the treasuries of the Orca, the Dragon, and the Empire itself. The Empire relied on those banks to enable trade across Dragaera, and the situation gave the Jhereg a lot of Imperial influence as well. If Fyres were to default on those loans, the banks would go under, the Dragaeran economy would crash, and the Empire’s Jhereg connections would likely become known as well.
Lord Shortisle, the Imperial Minister of Finance (also an Orca) discovered that Fyres’ “paper castles” were fraudulent. Shortisle threatens Fyres over it, trying to get his cooperation to undo some of the damage and stabilize the economy; in response Fyres threatens Shortisle with his contacts in the Jhereg. But Shortisle has Jhereg contacts too – specifically, Stony, who happens to not be holding any of Fyres’ debt. Shortly thereafter, Fyres “accidentally” dies during a party on his private boat, by slipping and hitting his head on a railing. His daughter had been convinced to bring a Jhereg assassin on board in exchange for help from Shortisle (and from Vonnith, one of Fyres’ bankers) in being able to sell off Fyres’ holdings before the extent of his fraud became known – which is why Mother’s house was being threatened in the first place.
Shortisle is at least prepared to start handling the fallout immediately – but he loses his job. Two separate covert groups get involved in the investigation of Fyres’ death. The Surveillance group sends Lieutenant Domm, who was assigned to falsify the investigation at Shortisle’s request. Domm announces that Fyres’ death was an accident a week later, which is a suspiciously short time for such an investigation. So the head of Surveillance leans on Lieutenant Loftis of the Special Tasks Group to step in and “properly” investigate Fyres’ death – but still report the same false result in the end. Vlad’s and Kiera’s own investigation gets tangled into that as well, spooking Reega into having Loftis killed, and causing Domm and Vonnith to set up Stony to be killed by Vlad.
When Vlad explains all this to Timmer, who was one of Loftis’ subordinates in the Special Tasks Group, he asks for the deed to Mother’s land in exchange. She agrees, leaves briefly, and then returns to announce to Vlad that “someone” (i.e. Domm) will be by to arrest him soon, carefully describing to him when and from where the officer will arrive. After killing Domm, Vlad returns to the cottage; soon, Timmer arrives as well, having tracked Loiosh back (since she can’t track Vlad thanks to his Phoenix Stone). She mostly wanted to satisfy her own curiosity as to whether Vlad was telling the truth about his motives; she also presents the deed to Mother. Timmer also wraps up the story, telling Vlad and Kiera that Vonnith and Reega will be going free in exchange for their cooperation in cleaning up the mess left by Fyres’ fraud.
After Timmer leaves, Vlad and Kiera go for a walk and discuss the things that Vlad has realized about Kiera. She has not been entirely honest with him, after all, but she’s curious what gave her true identity away, and Vlad tells her. She describes Kiera as something of a compartmentalized persona, which she uses to keep tabs on the Jhereg – and also to expand her own experiences beyond what was available to her in her usual identity. Vlad says he intends to take Savn home, and they part ways. Kiera closes the book with another letter to Cawti acknowledging the things that she and Vlad are hiding from each other (and that Kiera is hiding from her as well) – which includes Cawti and Vlad’s son, Vlad Norathar.
The Orca Thesis
The governing philosophy of the Orcas that Vlad and Kiera encounter in this book is, essentially, “Profit at any cost”. Fyres did not care how many people he lied to and defrauded in order to amass his questionable fortune. His daughter Reega was willing to assist in the murder of her father in order to preserve as much of his wealth as she could, and Vonnith set Stony and Vlad up to kill each other in order to protect her banking position. Hwdf’rjaanci was one of many potential victims of Vonnith and Reega’s plot to extract what profit they could from the wreckage of Fyres’ holdings, and she lost her savings in the bank collapse as well.
Even Lord Shortisle’s actions were primarily driven by profit and wealth. As the Minister of the Treasury, he was at least acting to preserve the Empire’s wealth (rather than just his own), but he too was willing to countenance both fraud and murder in the process.
The antithesis to the Orca viewpoint is pretty straightforward: there are things more important than making money. Kiera and Vlad both embody this principle in character as well as action. To begin with, Kiera’s thieving skills could bring her great wealth if she chose to apply them that way, but both in this book and previously we have only seen her use her skills to help others. In this case, Kiera agrees to help Vlad just in exchange for knowing what’s going on.
Meanwhile, Vlad has walked away from a fairly lucrative position in the Jhereg organization, and has decided not to do contract killings anymore. He, too, could still be making money hand over bloody fist if he had not had an attack of conscience, but since he left the Jhereg in Phoenix his motivations have been far less profit-driven. Vlad’s investigation in this book is as selfless an act as we’ve seen from him yet, as his only payment is Mother’s treatment of Savn’s mental illness.
These two exchanges, set up at the beginning, are bookended by his exchange with Timmer at the end, where Vlad trades the remaining information he has about the Fyres situation in exchange for the deed to Mother’s land, setting her free from the threat of eviction. None of these exchanges involve money, and each of them is beneficial to both sides involved, because both sides are interested in helping others and not just themselves. This is in stark contrast to the Orca business dealings that we’re aware of, every one of which involved one of the parties taking advantage of another.
The synthesis of these two viewpoints is pretty straightforward. As readers, by the end of the story, we expect to see those who have committed evil acts be punished or otherwise atone for their crimes; we hope for the same conclusion in the real world. We often speak of this process of vengeance or justice as a transaction – “you’ll pay for that”, “he’s paid his debt to society”, “it’s time for some payback”, and so forth. But though there are those in the story for whom the wages of sin turn out to be a deliberately unrevivifiable death, the architects of the entire plot – Reega and her accomplice Vonnith – walk away free, with no further payment required beyond cooperation in repairing the financial system that they will continue to benefit from. In fact, every significant character left alive at the end of the book gets paid for their efforts – the antagonists get rewarded in wealth, and the protagonists in less material benefits.
Disguise and Misdirection
While the profiteering mindset is at the core of the Orca thesis, I find Orca‘s focus on disguises to be a far more interesting thematic element.
The mechanics of commerce extend beyond the exchange of money for goods and services. Even an honest businessperson prefers to operate in secrecy whenever possible; information is an asset in almost any line of business, and granting your competitors advance knowledge of your plans is likely to reduce your own profits. But for the more predatory Orca – the fraudsters, the tax-evaders, the capitalists who build their fortunes on exploitation – secrecy is even more vital. Fyres’ hierarchy of nested shell companies served to prevent any but the most dogged investigator from connecting his various holdings together. Disguising his businesses allowed him to operate more freely while hiding the fraud underlying his fortune. The investigators themselves are also working covertly on behalf of their respective intelligence agencies.
This is something they have in common with our protagonists. Both Kiera and Vlad are in disguise when they meet at the beginning of the book, and Vlad goes through multiple other disguises over the course of his investigation; Kiera herself turns out to be a disguise as well. But none of these disguises holds up. Kiera and Vlad recognize each other quickly, Vlad learns later that nearly everyone he thought he had fooled with his disguises had in fact seen through them but chose not to tip their hands at the time, and by the end of the book Vlad has realized Kiera’s true identity. Similarly, Kiera and Vlad are eventually able to see beyond the disguises of the investigators and of Fyres’ businesses. Vlad acknowledges this at the end of the book with as universal a truth as we see anywhere in Orca: “We all need work on our disguises, don’t we?”
The structure of Fyres’ nested shell companies – one company owned by another, which is in turn owned by another, and so forth – is also reflected in the book’s narrative itself. Kiera is talking with Cawti, relating the story of her adventure with Vlad, but that layer of indirection allows Kiera to hide certain things from Cawti: her own identity, details of Vlad’s behavior, and so on. Some of Kiera’s story is heard second-hand (for her, third-hand for Cawti) from Vlad, and in some cases Vlad is reporting things that he heard from others as well, some of which also turn out to be lies. As readers we feel like we’re getting the truth as Kiera saw it during her viewpoints, and similarly from Vlad during his, but the fact that Fyres’ shell companies enabled his fraud leads us by analogy to wonder if Vlad and Kiera are really as reliable narrators as we would normally believe them to be.
Other interesting notes
- Devera sighting! This time it’s Kiera who sees Devera go by, not Vlad, while she’s waiting for a reaction to her breaking in to Shortisle’s office. The fact that Kiera recognizes Devera (or someone she thinks is Devera; it’s unclear whether it’s actually her) is another subtle clue to the attentive reader that Kiera knows things she shouldn’t.
- Speaking of kids – apparently Vlad left Cawti pregnant! This was the second of two pretty big reveals at the end of the book, and while the first one was pretty well telegraphed in ways that Vlad and Kiera reviewed, this one comes out of nowhere. I’m really looking forward to Vlad getting that particular piece of news…
- I haven’t talked much yet about Vlad’s abiding love of food. He’s quite the epicurean, and not a bad chef either; though it’s come up in passing in a few of the other books, it’s particularly prominent in Orca as Vlad frequently cooks for the cottage, either by himself or alongside Kiera or Mother. And it leads to one of my favorite asides in the book:
I suggested to Vlad that if the Jhereg really wanted to find him, all they had to do was keep track of the garlic consumption throughout the Empire. He suggested I not spread the idea around, because he’d as soon let them find him as quit eating garlic.
- While I winkingly glossed over the apparently similarity between Fyres and Donald Trump in a footnote earlier, I want to revisit that in connection with some other ways that I’ve noticed ideas in earlier books being applicable to current politics and other events. Vlad is something of an amateur philosopher, and as he spends a lot of time thinking about (or experiencing) how each of the Houses interact with the world, some of his observations take on a certain timeless quality. No deep observations about that, just an appreciation of books written twenty to thirty years ago staying fresh and relevant.
We’ll take our first big step into Vlad’s past since Taltos, and see the story of his brief yet memorable stint in Morrolan’s army…
September 5th, 2016 — Books
Upon Mount Olympolis resides the pantheon of the great cities of fantasy literature. New Crobuzon sits upon a throne of wings and clockwork, while Lankhmar’s throne of blackened bones and tarnished coins is no less impressive for its long years of wear. Ankh-Morpork’s oaken throne is carved with jocular elephants, who each with a wink of an eye and a curl of a trunk invite you to laugh along with them.
No less exalted on Olympolis is the fey city of Palimpsest. Her throne is at first one thing, then another, depending on who is looking at it and how the light hits it at the moment – but it is always finely wrought of the richest materials, though often ones no earthly craftsperson would ever use to make a chair. Her temples and shrines draw penitents who seek to bask in her otherworldly glory and suitors who cannot live without her terrible love, no matter what it might cost them.
Palimpsest is the story of a sexually transmitted city, and of four such pilgrims who each encounter the city and find that they need to return. The pilgrims are residents of the world as we-the-readers know it, but Palimpsest is built on fairy logic and surrealism. The author describes the city and its inhabitants with lush language and vivid imagery, anchored by the deep, emotional truths that govern Palimpsest’s world as surely as the laws of physics govern our own. If the mark of a great storyteller is the ability to tell you things you know to be untrue and then make your heart believe in them anyway, then Catherynne Valente is a master of the craft.
The city of Palimpsest thrives on human need. Those who have visited are left with a gut-deep yearning that slowly leaches the color out of the rest of the world. Palimpsest is a compulsion – the kind of desire that the Buddha warned you about. Possibly someone who is perfectly satisfied with their life on Earth would not feel such need to return as the four protagonists do, but perfection is boring; the flaws and scars and traumas that the characters carry back and forth between our world and Palimpsest are as compelling as the city itself, and just as richly detailed. Palimpsest and all its wonders draw the readers into the book and tantalize us with possibilities, but ultimately it’s the loss and need and loneliness of November, Ludovico, Sei, and Oleg that compel us to stay and see their journey through to the end. Along the way we get to make sense of Palimpsest itself, as the disparate, absurd details we have learned get slowly and satisfyingly knotted together into a cohesive whole.
I could say so much more about the book, but ultimately my own words will fall short, and if you haven’t read it you deserve the opportunity to discover all of Palimpsest’s secrets for yourself.
August 25th, 2016 — News
Maybe [the jhereg] were the only beings in the world who knew what was really going on, and they were secretly laughing at everyone else.
Athyra is the sixth Vlad Taltos book, published in 1993. It takes place “some years” after Vlad’s departure from the Jhereg at the end of Phoenix.
The athyra is a bird of prey with a mild psychic ability it uses to both attract prey and repel predators.
Athyra rules minds’ interplay…
The House of the Athyra is known for intellectual pursuits, particularly in the area of sorcery. Vlad describes two types of Athyra:
“…Some are mystics, who attempt to explore the nature of the world by looking within themselves, and some are explorers, who look upon the world as a problem to be solved, and thus reduce other people to either distractions or pieces of a puzzle, and treat them accordingly.”
Savn considered this, and said, “The explorers sound dangerous.”
“They are. Not nearly as dangerous as the mystics, however.”
“Why is this?”
“Because explorers at least believe that others are real, if unimportant. To a mystic, that which dwells inside is the only reality.”
Previously in the series, we have only encountered one significant Athyra character: Loraan, the wizard from whom Vlad stole Spellbreaker and the staff containing Aliera’s soul during Taltos.
Athyra are far from the only Dragaerans who practice sorcery, but no other Dragaerans push the boundaries of sorcery like the Athyra do, through centuries and even millennia of careful study, observation, and experimentation.
After a prologue featuring four unnamed people eating an unidentified bird around a campfire, the story starts with a brand new viewpoint character, Savn. He’s a young Teckla apprenticed to Master Wag, the physicker for the village of Smallcliff. On his way home from Wag’s, he encounters Vlad and points him towards Tem’s house, the village inn. At home that night, he has a mystic vision of Vlad opening and closing the paths of his future life, which shows him that, contrary to his assumption that he would eventually become Smallcliff’s physicker, he has choices that he can make in his life. (At this point and a few others, we get viewpoints from Rocza, helping fill in some of the story details that Savn isn’t yet aware of. As Loiosh’s mate, Rocza has a psionic connection with him but not with “the Provider” (Vlad); she frequently does not understand the things that Loiosh asks her to do on Vlad’s behalf, but helps him anyway out of some combination of love and hope of reward.)
The next morning, a cart driver called “Reins” is found dead outside Tem’s. Savn assists Wag with the autopsy. Speculation at Tem’s points at Vlad (being an Easterner who has only just arrived in town); Vlad claims otherwise and offers to help find the killer. He discovers that the local lord, Baron Smallcliff, is the Athyra sorcerer Loraan, from whom Vlad stole Spellbreaker. This fact surprises Vlad because he thought Loraan was dead, and he tells Savn that the Baron is probably undead.
Vlad also offers to teach Savn witchcraft, and starts with a meditation technique and psionic communication. He does this in a cave that he wants to explore for other reasons; he explains that “Dark Water” (water that runs underground and has never seen the light of day) can be used to aid necromancy and also, when contained, to repel the undead. Vlad also begins filling Savn in on some background: Loraan wants to kill him, and probably killed Reins to draw Vlad in, as Reins had been the driver who delivered the hidden Vlad to Loraan’s keep previously. Vlad intends to avenge him.
Savn isn’t sure what to think, but the amount of time he’s been spending with Vlad is starting to draw attention – first nasty looks from others in the town, and then a beating from his former friends, which Rocza breaks up. Savn is aware that his life is changing but he no longer knows what lies ahead of him. The rest of the harvest passes in a blur.
Later, Savn spots some of Loraan’s men-at-arms heading to Tem’s, and runs ahead to warn Vlad; in the ensuing fight, Vlad is wounded and escapes via teleport. Savn gathers some supplies (including Vlad’s pack from his room at Tem’s) and goes to the spot where he first met Vlad; from there the jhereg lead him to Vlad who has a broken rib, a collapsed lung, and a wound to his leg. Savn recalls a similar case from his training with Wag, and improvises an underwater-seal suction system to reinflate Vlad’s lung. Confident after the successful procedure and waiting for Vlad to wake, Savn practices the witchcraft trance and wanders in his own dreams; a voice tells him that he still matters and Vlad will need him again.
Savn goes for more supplies, avoiding a mob searching for Vlad, and brings Wag back to Vlad; Savn’s sister Polyi eventually shows up as well. They move Vlad to the caves both for access to water and to avoid discovery. Vlad has a fever from an infection in his leg wound, which Wag begins to treat while reciting the proper handling of the “Fever Imps” which constitute Wag’s basic grasp of germ theory. Savn and Polyi stay with Vlad overnight, and argue about Loraan’s undeath and Vlad’s intention to kill him. The next morning, their parents don’t seem upset about their absence, and Savn suspects Vlad has bespelled them; nobody else Savn talks to believes Vlad capable of it.
When the two jhereg show up at Savn’s house again, he goes with them despite being angry at Vlad, but he brings a kitchen knife in case he decides to kill Vlad. Polyi accompanies him, and they treat Vlad’s fever again. Savn accuses Vlad of magically manipulating his parents’ minds, and Vlad admits to it. Savn reminds Vlad of what he’d said about Athyra explorers treating people like objects and Athyra mystics acting like they don’t exist; Vlad realizes he’s been doing both. He finally fills Savn in on the details of the situation: Loraan is working with a Jhereg assassin, who wants to kill Vlad Morganti-style because of his departure from the Jhereg. Savn doesn’t know whether to believe Vlad, and engages him in something of an epistemological debate; Vlad’s position comes down to “don’t assume, find out”. Vlad tells Savn about his plan to enter Loraan’s manor via the cave system, and believes himself somewhat safe under the assumption that Loraan can’t possibly maintain a teleport block over all the caves.
Savn decides to apply Vlad’s argument to the question of Loraan’s undeath and goes to the manor to request an audience, claiming he has information about the Easterner. He observes that his Baron is unusually pale, and that he is in fact accompanied by a Jhereg assassin, but Loraan quickly grows impatient with him. Savn is thrown into the same cell as Master Wag, who has been tortured into giving up Vlad’s location. Savn sets Wag’s broken limbs and remembers he still has the kitchen knife; he uses it to stab a guard in the back with surgical precision, and goes in search of the cave-connected room that Vlad had hoped to enter. He finds the room, hears tapping on one of the gates, and opens it to admit Vlad, Polyi, and the two jhereg. Then Loraan and the Jhereg assassin, Ishtvan, teleport into the room.
The ensuing fight happens mostly in the darkness, with Vlad trying to get his enemies to distrust each other. He is still wounded, though, and he tries to get Savn and Polyi to run as Ishtvan closes in on him. Instead, Savn fills his lantern with Dark Water and uses it to weaken Loraan. Loraan calls for Ishtvan to kill Savn, which gives Vlad the distraction he needs to kill Ishtvan; Loraan knocks the lantern from Savn’s hand and then knocks Savn unconscious. Savn drops directly into the witchcraft trance, and watches himself catch the Morganti dagger passed to him by Rocza and kill Loraan with it.
The epilogue continues the scene from the prologue; we learn that the four people are Vlad, Savn, Polyi, and a minstrel named Sara; they are eating an athyra. Savn does not seem to be aware of much; the use of the Morganti dagger severely damaged his mind. Vlad asks Sara to take Polyi back to town but keeps Savn with him, as the townsfolk are unlikely to treat him well anyway, and he intends to find a way to heal Savn’s mind.
The Athyra Thesis
The Athyra thesis can be summed up as “Knowledge is power”. There is more to it, of course – not least the unspoken corollary that both power and knowledge are desirable things, and the more the better. Another corollary that Athyra tend to believe is the idea that knowledge (and the power that comes from it) ought to be held close, guarded carefully, and not shared if one can possibly help it – the fewer people that know a thing, the greater its power.
In the first five Vlad books, Vlad typically takes the side of the antithesis for most of the plot. Throughout Athyra, however, Vlad displays the qualities of the namesake House, both positively and negatively. His discoveries and knowledge drive the plot as he figures out that Loraan is undead (and that he killed Reins) and develops a plan to kill him. He teaches Savn how to enter a trance state for witchcraft, and how to communicate psionically, but he keeps a lot of secrets about what else he knows and what he plans to do.
After Vlad describes the two types of Athyra, Savn asks him whether he’s an explorer or a mystic (implicitly asserting Vlad’s Athyra similarity); Vlad says that he hasn’t found the answer to that question, “but I know that other people are real, and that is something.” That something doesn’t keep him from using those other people for his own purposes, though. He manipulates Savn and his family in multiple ways, including outright mental magic cast on Savn’s parents, and he puts Savn and Polyi in lethal danger. (Nor are Savn and his family the only people Vlad uses; Reins is dead because of Vlad’s choice to use him to get into Loraan’s keep during Taltos.)
The Athyra Antithesis
Savn, being the viewpoint character for this book, takes on the antithesis role that Vlad has taken on in prior books. Until he meets Vlad, Savn has led a mostly unexamined life – helping his parents farm and studying under the village physicker, whom he will inevitably succeed at some point. While somewhat well-educated by Smallcliff Teckla standards, given Master Wag’s rigorous education in how to think critically about the cases he handles, Savn is both younger and more ignorant than any other Dragaeran character we’ve spent any significant time with. He continually seeks guidance from those around him, thinking about the things he’s experienced according to their standards instead of relying on his own knowledge.
Even in the areas of Savn’s training, medical care (and to a lesser extent, storytelling), Savn applies his expertise for the benefit of those around him. As the village physicker, he expects the end result of his apprenticeship to be a life serving others with very little improvement to his own station in life; Master Wag is respected by the villagers, of course, but at the end of the day he’s still a Teckla living and working in a small village. Such a life is opposed to everything the Athyra consider important, both in one’s general ignorance of the wider world and in its use of what knowledge one does hold to help others but rarely oneself.
The synthesis between the Athyra thesis and its antithesis builds from the first chapter. A few hours after Vlad and Savn meet for the first time, Savn has a vision of the world opening up for him, and realizes that he has choices in his life. He doesn’t necessarily have to stay in Smallcliff his whole life, and he doesn’t even necessarily have to be a physicker.
Following that, Savn begins to learn how to think, and realizes in the process that he can’t depend on other people for his answers. Even Master Wag’s suggestion to simply observe and think doesn’t satisfy him any more than would Bless’s appeal to divinity or Speaker’s appeal to authority. Eventually he takes the question to Vlad himself, in the process of trying to decide whether he believes what Vlad has been saying about Loraan.
“Vlad, how do you know what the truth is?”
… “Let’s start with this,” [Vlad] said. “Suppose everyone you know says there’s no cave here. Is that the truth?”
“Good. Not everyone would agree with you, but I do.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Vlad thought for a moment longer, then suddenly shook his head. “There’s no easy answer. You learn things bit by bit, and you check everything by trying it out, and then sometimes you get a big piece of it all at once, and then you check that out.”
Vlad goes on to challenge the things that “everyone knows” or that have been passed down to Savn by tradition – that the Baron is a good person, or that Vlad’s fever was due to the Fever Imps that Master Wag taught Savn about.
“Well, I assume, since it’s been done that way for years-”
“Don’t assume, find out.”
“You mean, I can’t know anything until I’ve proven it for myself?”
“Hmmm. No, not really. If someone learns something, and passes it on, you don’t have to go through everything he learned again. … But you don’t have to accept it on faith, either.”
“Then what do you do?”
“You make certain you understand it; you understand it all the way to the bottom. And you test it. When you both understand why it is the way it is, and you’ve tried it out, then you can say you know it.”
At the climax of the book, Savn is unable to perceive most of the fight between Vlad, the Jhereg assassin Ishtvan, and Loraan; he is both literally and figuratively in the dark. But he’s still able to test the knowledge he’s acquired, realizing that first-hand observation has validated Vlad’s assertions about Loraan. With that understanding he is able to turn the fight around by using Dark Water to weaken Loraan, and the defeat of both antagonists follows from there.
In the end, Savn embodies the synthesis by turning his knowledge into power as the Athyra do, but sacrificing his mind in the process – the one price, above all else, that no Athyra would ever choose to pay.
Other interesting notes
- The name “Savn” seems to be derived from the word “savant”, which typically means a person with broad or deep knowledge; etymologically, as a noun it simply means “one who knows”. (The French word savant translates to the present participle “knowing”.) The word is best known by many as part of the phrase “idiot savant”, which may well describe Savn at the end of the book (though it is unclear how much of his medical knowledge Savn retains at this point).
- The chapters are each preceded by a verse from the Dragaeran folk song “Dung-Foot Peasant”. Each verse describes a category of person the singer will not marry for some given reason (except for the last verse, in which the singer says they’ll marry a bandit. Each category also describes someone in the chapter – Savn and his family are the peasants of the first verse (and the title), Tem is the serving-man of the second, the third refers to the town Speaker, and so on. The “bandit” of the seventeenth verse is Vlad himself; he had previously stolen from Loraan, has been making a living by occasionally stealing from other bandits, and is in fact the person Savn leaves town with.
July 11th, 2016 — Books
“But it all happened so fast.”
“That is how these things work, Vladimir. You see all your peasants smile and look sleepy and they say, ‘Oh, this is our lot in life,’ and then something happens and they all say, ‘We will die to keep them from doing this to our children.’ All in a night it can happen, Vladimir.”
“I guess so. But I’m frightened, Noish-pa…”
Phoenix is the fifth Vlad Taltos book, published in 1990. It is essentially a direct sequel to Teckla, not only following directly afterwards in the chronology but also continuing to address some of the plot points and themes that were raised but not resolved in that book.
(I have written the vast majority of this post while caring for my newborn son (who arrived on May 28th); I apologize in advance for both the delay in posting this and any lack of coherency in the argument. Also, please forgive the extremely long synopsis, as I did not have the time or brain to write a shorter one. In any case, hopefully it won’t take quite as long to write the next one…)
Phoenixes in Dragaera are similar to those from classical mythology – rare birds that die in fire and are reborn from their own ashes.
Phoenix sinks into decay…
Phoenix rise from ashes gray.
The core attributes of the House of the Phoenix has far less to do with the individual members than it does with the House’s place in the Dragaeran Cycle. As the phoenix represents death and rebirth, the Phoenix period in the Cycle is supposed to be one of decadence (in the sense of a declining civilization) and renewal. The House of the Phoenix is accordingly understood to be situated at both the beginning and the end of the sequence of Houses, tying that sequence together into a repeating cycle. Furthermore, the Phoenixes have a particular place in Dragaeran history, as the Interregnum that ended a couple hundred years was bracketed by a decadent Phoenix emperor and a reborn Phoenix empress. The emperor, Tortaalik, was decadent to the point of causing the collapse of the Empire; the current Phoenix empress, Zerika, is considered a “reborn” Phoenix after having retrieved the Orb of Judgment from the Paths of the Dead and returned living to the mortal world.
Zerika is Empress not only by virtue of having retrieved the Orb, but also simply as a result of being the only Phoenix currently alive. It is unclear how the House will continue – a dicey proposition in any case, as one can only be confirmed as a member of the House if a phoenix passed overhead at the time of one’s birth – but there is speculation that divine intervention will be involved. In any case, since the end of the Interregnum (about 240 years before the events of Phoenix), Zerika has held the Orb and by most accounts has ruled wisely and well in accordance with her “reborn” nature.
The plot starts with Vlad cornered by unknown assailants; he prays to his goddess Verra for aid, and to his surprise she answers by bodily transporting him to her throne room in the Paths of the Dead (which was the point of Verra arranging the attack). She hires him to murder the King of Greenaere, an island nation off the coast of Dragaera where, for some reason, Dragaeran sorcery and psionics do not work. He demands ten thousand gold imperials for the job, which she agrees to.
The book’s headings are titled as lessons about being an assassin, a conceit which Vlad introduces in a brief prologue and occasionally returns to in the narration. Notably, he points out as he tries to plan the murder that he prefers to have much more information about and control over the job he’s doing, and his concern is justified – while he successfully carries out the assassination, he does not get away cleanly, and he has to begin running. After meeting a Greenaeran drummer (who helps him tend the wounds he suffered while escaping from the guards), both he and the drummer, Aibynn, are arrested for the king’s murder.
Greenaere’s notion of interrogation is civilized, and Vlad is not tortured; he refuses to either admit to the assassination or reveal why he did it. He does get some time in prison for self-reflection, though, continuing to challenge his current choice of work in light of Noish-pa’s explicit statement of disapproval on the topic during Teckla. He is eventually rescued by Aliera, Cawti, and Morrolan, and both he and Aibynn are brought back to Adrilankha.
From here, the consequences of the assassination unfold, and becomes entangled with Kelly’s revolutionary group; Cawti’s involvement in that group is still a sore point between her and Vlad. Greenaere and its ally Elde Island declare war on Dragaera, and Morrolan, Aliera, and Sethra prepare; they’re aware (or at least highly suspicious) that Vlad had something to do with the outbreak of hostilities. The Empire’s preparations include forced conscription in South Adrilankha, which further angers the revolutionaries; the leaders (including Cawti) are soon thereafter arrested for the destruction of a watchtower. Cawti is offered conditional release when Norathar, the Dragon heir and her former partner, attempts to intercede, but she refuses to leave without her compatriots.
Vlad, on hearing this at Castle Black, makes use of the Tower of Windows to reenter the Halls of Judgment and demand answers from Verra. She explains that the intent of the assassination of the King of Greenaere was in fact to start a war and cause conscription in South Adrilankha, which she had hoped would derail Kelly’s nascent revolution. Verra explains that Kelly has discovered a long-hidden truth about how society works, but that that truth cannot flourish in the Empire as it is, and his attempt to force it to do so will only lead to the massacre of his organization. She had not been expecting them to fight conscription; her surprise and dismay at how things went is terrifying to Vlad, who is not used to the idea of gods making mistakes.
Vlad returns to his usual pattern of acting stubbornly and rashly in defense of his wife and starts confronting and threatening high-ranked Jhereg, earning himself multiple assassination attempts in the process. A Jhereg council member named Boralinoi tells Vlad that he framed Kelly’s group (and Cawti in particular) for the watchtower’s destruction, because the group was cutting into Jhereg profits as well as causing problems with the Empire. Vlad responds by declaring his intention to kill Boralinoi, but isn’t able to do so immediately and has to fight his way out of the council member’s office.
Soon thereafter, Vlad is summoned to speak with the Empress, who claims she simply wanted to know him better after he was brought to her attention both by threatening the Jhereg’s representative in the Palace and by his marriage to the former partner of the Dragon Heir. They walk around the palace while they talk, apparently a usual habit for the Empress. Vlad asks about his wife’s release, and Zerika tells him that she refused the conditions of her release, which included a promise not to act against the interests of the Empire (a different explanation than was given Norathar, though Vlad does not comment on it).
Zerika also describes what she sees as the role of the Empress – not to rule Dragaera absolutely but to make sure the lifeblood of the Empire (food and goods, mainly) flows uninterrupted, and to use the Orb to safeguard the Empire from disaster. She explains her desire to keep the Jhereg happy by revealing that the Jhereg play a role in the proper functioning of the Empire (rather than simply profiting by providing access to things the Empire has deemed illegal): the Jhereg provide the urban Teckla with distractions from their menial existence and prevent Teckla unhappiness (which would ultimately disrupt the efficiency of the city and the “delicate balance” of Dragaeran society). But she is sympathetic to Vlad’s plea that he needs Cawti freed more than the Jhereg need her imprisoned, and she orders her unconditional release. Cawti is, of course, as committed as ever to Kelly’s cause and declares her intention to work for their release as well, and her relationship with Vlad is no less fractured than it was before she was imprisoned.
With both career and marriage in jeopardy, Vlad retreats to the last and first constant of his life – his grandfather. In Noish-pa’s usual fashion, he provides wisdom and context with a minimum of judgment, as Vlad tries to make sense of the impending revolt and the turmoil of his life. Noish-pa uses witchcraft to reveal that another assassin waits for Vlad outside the shop; Vlad leaves, draws him away from the shop, and kills him first. He is wandering South Adrilankha when the revolution starts in earnest, though he doesn’t remember much in detail (and his narration skips ahead accordingly). Vlad returns to his grandfather’s shop to find three dead Phoenix Guards and Noish-pa cleaning his rapier; he convinces him to accept sanctuary at Castle Black, which Morrolan is happy to grant.
At Castle Black, Vlad learns that Cawti has been rearrested – this time for treason against the Empire, for which the penalty is execution. He figures out a plan and secures promises of assistance from his usual allies despite not letting them all in on it. He gets Morrolan to arrange an immediate audience with the Empress, to whom he proposes both to testify that Boralinoi and the Jhereg Organization were the actual destroyers of the watchtower, and to secure a peace treaty with Greenaere, in exchange for the release of Cawti and her compatriots. She accepts the deal and he testifies immediately, once and for all ending his career in the Jhereg Organization, and returns to Castle Black.
Sethra Lavode, Daymar, and Aibynn work together to punch a teleport through Greenaere’s sorcery blocks, and Vlad’s party (himself, Loiosh and Rocza, Morrolan, and Aliera) reach the castle, storming past guards who challenge them but are unable to actually stop them. The new King (the son of Vlad’s victim) demands the assassin as part of the treaty deal; Vlad quietly makes an arrangement with him, outside of his allies’ hearing. Morrolan and Aliera teleport back home, but Vlad steps out of the area of effect and surrenders himself.
Vlad recommends they kill him quickly, but the King has questions, saying Vlad was someone’s tool and he’d rather have the wielder. Vlad refuses to reveal or kill his employer (not that he was likely to accomplish the latter anyway), and then they run out of time. Aliera returns by teleport, along with Aibynn and Boralinoi, and a letter from the Empress claiming he was Vlad’s employer (which Vlad isn’t about to gainsay). The King allows Vlad to act as Boralinoi’s executioner, but then refuses to let him leave again, and he and Aliera fight their way out of the palace. Aibynn proposes drumming again, and manages to drum the three of them back into Verra’s halls. Vlad is angry with Verra to the point of declaring his intent to never have anything to do with her again, but Verra points out he’s starting a different life and she won’t hold him to that yet. She declares that Vlad has an appointment with Empress and sends them back to the palace.
Zerika grants Vlad the Imperial title of Count Szurke, which comes with some land near the Eastern border. Vlad passes off his organization to Kragar, except for his South Adrilankha interests, which he gives to Cawti as they say goodbye for the foreseeable future. He also says goodbye to the rest of his allies, and then to his grandfather, who he asks to manage his new lands and manor. On the run now, Vlad teleports back to the place where he originally received Loiosh’s egg, and sets off to the west.
The Phoenix Thesis
The standard Phoenix attributes of decay and rebirth apply to the House’s place in the cycle, but those are two facets of what I think is the deeper meaning of the House. Phoenix is a liminal House, a symbol of transition between one state of being and another. The Cycle may be cyclical, but the iterations are not identical, and the House of the Phoenix stands astride the threshold of history, acting as psychopomp for the death of the ages past and the midwife for the birth of the ages yet to come. Tortaalik in his decadence guided the pre-Interregnum Empire to its death. Then, Zerika reversed the psychopomp role to bring the Empire itself, embodied in the Orb, back from the dead; the new Empire is not precisely the same as the old one, much as the phoenix arising from its own ashes need not be identical to its former self.
Additionally, the House of the Phoenix is generally considered to be the most noble of the Dragaeran Houses, by some combination of their rarity and their particular position in the Cycle; this is of course more true during the Phoenixes’ turn holding the Orb, and even more so during the reign of a reborn Phoenix. Phoenixes are, more often than any other Dragaerans, born to rule in one way or another.
To be Phoenix, then, is to be a leader that both catalyzes and responds to change – when a Phoenix moves through the world, the world changes in their wake. Zerika exemplifies this not only in her position as Empress but in the way she acts in the process of making decisions – she thinks best on her feet, and she and Vlad are walking during both of their significant conversations. (The decadent Phoenixes are likely not in motion nearly as much, but in those cases their very inaction catalyzes transition as well – whether the destruction of the Empire or simply the changing of the Cycle.) Further, in one of those conversations we get more of a view into the mechanisms of Imperial leadership than we’ve ever had before, as Zerika explains the tradeoffs she makes and the way even the Jhereg are useful to the Empire.
The Phoenix Antithesis
The antithesis of the Phoenix attributes of change is stasis and stagnation. The anti-Phoenix seeks to avoid change – to keep doing the same things in the same way, forever. Maybe it’s due to fear of what could be lost, or simply comfort in the way things are, which are two sides of the same coin. But when things inevitably do change, the anti-Phoenix turns to regression – trying to turn back the clock and return to the “good old days”, whatever that means. It is of course impossible to do – things said cannot be unsaid, things done are remembered even if undone, and time can no more flow backwards than can the Cycle that governs Dragaeran history.
Vlad spends the majority of the book playing the anti-Phoenix, of course. He doesn’t want his life to change, and he’s terrified by the changes that are already happening. He not only refuses to accept the changes that have already happened, but he also ignores other changes as they happen, as he clings tightly to the illusion that his former life still exists.
He accepts Verra’s assassination contract as if it were any other, even though it isn’t; he asks her, a goddess, the most powerful being he’s ever known, for a simple monetary payment because the prospect of her offering something else scares him. (“I’ve heard too many stories about people getting what they wish for.”) The unusual employer isn’t the only thing that makes this contract different, either; he acknowledges once he’s on Greenaere that he’s usually a lot better informed about his jobs, and he pays dearly for the lack of preparation.
Following his return from Greenaere, Vlad’s actions for nearly the entire remainder of Phoenix is motivated by his desire to save Cawti and his relationship with her, the changes in which he refuses to accept until near the end of the book.
The fact that resisting change is futile means that most of Phoenix is spent in synthesis. Despite his desire to handle this contract like any other, not only is the assassination of the King of Greenaere different in its own right, but it also catalyzes the major changes that occur over the rest of the book. His unwillingness to accept the changes that are happening cause and accelerate other changes in his life; trying to save Cawti causes him to destroy his career in the Jhereg.
In terms of the action of the book, the climax occurs as Vlad and Aliera escape Greenaere after delivering (and executing) Boralinoi. However, the climax in Vlad’s development during the book is even more important; this is a book about how people change, after all. At the beginning of chapter 15, Vlad faces the realization that he has, in fact changed:
When had I suddenly become enamored of doing the right thing, rather than the practical thing? Was it on the streets of South Adrilankha? Was it in my grandfather’s shop, when he said, so simply and quietly, that what I did was wrong? Was it when I finally realized, once and for all, that the woman I’d married was gone forever, and that, whoever she had become, she had no use for me as I was? Or was it that I was finally faced with a problem that couldn’t be solved by killing the right person; could only be solved, in fact, by performing a service to the Empire that I hated?
He realizes that Cawti had gone from hating Dragaerans (as he thought he did despite all of his friends being Dragaeran) to hating the Empire, just as he has been doing, and concludes:
By surrendering to “right” as opposed to “practical”, I had changed irrevocably. But once you allow yourself to recognize necessity, you find two things: One, you find your options so restricted that the only course of action is obvious, and, two, that a great sense of freedom comes with the decision.
By this time tomorrow, Vlad Taltos, Jhereg and assassin, would be dead, one way or the other.
Knowing as he does that his career as a member of the Jhereg Organization and his life in Adrilankha are both going to end no matter what, Vlad at least has the freedom to act without clinging to the parts of his life that are already doomed. He had in fact already made that choice when he testified, under the Orb, against the Jhereg – but this moment is when he fully realizes what his decisions have meant.
Change will, ultimately, always win out over stasis. The synthesis of the Phoenix thesis and its antithesis is essentially a victory for the Phoenix point of view: while you cannot prevent change, you can decide how to handle the transitions in your life, and even use the inevitable changes to their greatest effect in improving the lives of yourself and others.
In addition to the general thesis/themes of transition and change, Phoenix has a particular interest in how people get from one place to another. Means of transportation Vlad uses include:
- Divine teleportation via prayer
- Sea travel by ship
- Being carried in a crate
- Escaping through a hole melted in a jail wall
- Teleportation via Dragaeran sorcery
- Climbing through a window that has been ritually linked to the Halls of Judgement
- Walking in circles through the Imperial Palace
- Teleportation across planes (again, to the Halls of Judgment) via drumming
Other interesting notes
- Fittingly for this liminal House, the events of Phoenix take place around the Dragaeran New Year; the revolt starts on the second day of the year.
- We discover more details, and raise more questions, about the Interregnum (itself a 497-year liminal state) and how it changed the Empire upon its restoration. The advancement in Dragaeran sorcery resulting from the pre-Empire sorcery practiced during the Interregnum seems to have changed Imperial society in much the same way as the Industrial Revolution changed Western civilization. The biggest question that occurs to me about the Interregnum and its end is this: would a non-Phoenix have been able to recover the Orb from the Paths of the Dead? Or would the need for the cycle to resume at the reign of the Phoenix mean that any such attempt would be doomed to fail? (This is probably a question best tabled until we get to the Khaavren Romances, though…)
- The cyclical nature of the Phoenix is also evident in Vlad’s choice of destination upon teleporting away from Adrilankha. He returns to the place where he originally performed the ritual linking him with Loiosh; he speculates that this may be the place where his life as an assassin could be considered to have started, and decides that it is an appropriate place for that life to end as well. As the reign of the Phoenix marks both the beginning and end of a Cycle (and as the end of a cycle is the beginning of the next), that place in the wilderness marked the beginning of Vlad’s Jhereg career and its end, and the beginning of whatever came next.
It would be easy to give in to self-pity, but I would only have been lying to myself. It was a time of change, a time of growth…
May 23rd, 2016 — Books
But there was still somewhere the sense of triumph for having done something no witch had ever done before, and a certain serene pleasure in having succeeded. I decided I’d feel pretty good if it didn’t kill me.
Dying, I’ve found, always puts a crimp in my enjoyment of an event.
Taltos was the fourth Vlad Taltos book published, in 1988. It is the earliest book in Vlad’s chronology (with the brief exception of the prologue to Jhereg, which takes place after Taltos‘ flashback scenes but before the main plot).
Taltos is one of the only two books in the Vlad series not named after a Dragaeran House. (The other, The Final Contract, is planned to be the last book in the series.) So this post might be a little different from the preceding ones – but we’ll see if I can stick to the format. Let’s give it a try!
(Also, a brief programming note: my wife is pregnant and due in a week. Posts may continue to be intermittent for a while.)
In the mythology of Hungary (the country of Brust’s descent), a táltos is someone given supernatural powers at birth. How exactly this happens isn’t clear; some sources say that it is due to prenatal contact with God, but others connect the táltos with pagan religion (which raises the question of which god is involved). The powers of a táltos generally include the power to cure as well as a meditative trance ability that somewhat resembles Vlad’s witchcraft meditation. A táltos usually has extra bones (e.g. extra fingers) – this may or may not be connected to the extra joints Vlad notices in the goddess Verra’s fingers, as worship of Verra seems to be at least loosely connected with Eastern witchcraft. There are other aspects of the táltos, many of which vary by who’s telling the legends.
The only members of the Taltos family about whom I have any details are Vlad, his father, and his grandfather. Neither Vlad’s father nor his grandfather have been given a first name so far in the books (though Vlad calls his grandfather “Noish-pa”). Vlad’s father and grandfather moved to Adrilankha before Vlad was born. (Vlad’s mother died when Vlad was young; that’s about all we know of her at the moment.)
His father worked for decades as a restaurateur; Easterners apparently brought the concept of restaurants (as separate from an inn that provides food along with the lodgings) to Dragaera, and they still run most of the best restaurants in Adrilankha. He then spent his life’s savings to buy a baronetcy in the House of the Jhereg and unsuccessfully attempted to assimilate into Dragaeran culture before dying shortly thereafter. Even years later, Vlad sees this as a vast waste of money, despite how lucrative his own career in the Jhereg has become, and he holds a lot of resentment for his father’s desire to become Dragaeran.
Vlad’s grandfather taught Vlad fencing and Eastern witchcraft (despite his father’s protestations that Vlad should instead learn Dragaeran sorcery). He was also involved somehow in the Easterner revolt sometime around when Vlad was born, which is an occasional topic of discussion in Teckla. Noish-pa often acts as Vlad’s moral compass; Vlad goes to him whenever he’s having trouble figuring out how to move forward with the bigger questions of life, and Noish-pa gently but reliably points Vlad in the right direction.
Summarizing Vlad Taltos himself is difficult, for reasons I’ll discuss in more detail shortly…
Taltos tells a couple of stories, interspersed. The main plot starts with Vlad as a new Jhereg boss, low on the totem pole but controlling his own area, learning that one of his “button-men” (basically, “henchman”) stole the money that he was supposed to be collecting for Vlad and ran away with it. The flashback plot is Vlad’s youth and initial entry into the Jhereg Organization as an enforcer, giving more detail on the background story we already knew. There is also a third narrative, split among the seventeen chapter headings, of Vlad casting some kind of extremely difficult witchcraft; we find out what exactly it is towards the end of the story.
In the main plot, Vlad soon learns his button-man, Quion, has fled to Dzur Mountain, home of the extremely powerful (and also undead) sorceress, Sethra Lavode. (The name is of course familiar to us readers, but this is the first time Vlad has had anything to do with her.) Quion apparently had also met Morrolan (another name more familiar to the reader than to Vlad at this point) before the theft, so Vlad goes to ask Morrolan about it, and Morrolan teleports himself and Vlad straight to Dzur Mountain – where they find Sethra Lavode and Quion’s corpse. It turns out that the whole thing was a set up to get Vlad to visit Dzur Mountain in order for Sethra and Morrolan to make Vlad a lucrative and dangerous proposition: breaking into an Athyra wizard’s keep to recover a staff containing the soul of Aliera e’Kieron. (In case it wasn’t obvious by now, Taltos is the book in which Vlad meets nearly all of his powerful allies.)
The supposition is that the Athrya wizard, Loraan, had set up his keep’s defenses to alert him to the presence of any unexpected Dragaeran visitors, but had not accounted for the presence of Easterners, hence Sethra and Morrolan hiring Vlad for the job. Vlad’s objections to the job are beaten down by Sethra’s offer of seven thousand Imperials, and he takes the case. He breaks into Loraan’s keep by hiding in a wine barrel, but runs into Loraan in his lab; Morrolan comes to the rescue. They escape with not only the staff but also the golden chain that Vlad found, which the reader already knows to be Spellbreaker; Morrolan appears to have killed Loraan in the process, though their hasty teleport back to Dzur Mountain makes that difficult to confirm.
At this point, we spend a bit more time than usual in flashbacks, as Vlad describes how he first met Kiera the Thief, the only one of his usual allies that he’d met before he started working for the Organization. She helps him out in a couple different ways, and asks her to hold on to a vial she claims contains the blood of a goddess. For only twenty or thirty years, “not long,” she says, forgetting (or pretending to forget, more likely) how much of an Easterner lifespan that is.
Back in the main action, Vlad is summoned back to Dzur Mountain, where Sethra and Morrolan ask him to enter the Paths of the Dead – essentially, an exclusive section of the Dragaeran afterlife – to reunite Aliera’s soul with her body and bring her back to the world of the living. They are asking him because they believe that, as an Easterner, Vlad should be able to leave the Paths when a Dragaeran is not able to. Vlad agrees on the condition that Morrolan accompany him, and Morrolan agrees in turn despite having no reason to believe he’ll be able to leave. They travel to Deathgate Falls, the entry point to the Paths of the Dead, and follow Sethra’s instructions to reach the Lords of Judgement (which is to say, the gods, as Easterners see them). Verra, Vlad’s occasional matron goddess, is among them, and is surprised to hear that Vlad and Morrolan are there to retrieve Aliera. She somehow summons and revives Aliera, who in typical Dragon fashion refuses to leave Morrolan behind.
Verra explains that it is the blood that determines the fate of someone in the Paths of the Dead – hence Vlad and his Easterner blood can leave (once), but Morrolan and his Dragaeran blood must stay, and Aliera is only granted an exemption as the heir to the Imperial throne. (Verra’s own blood is clearly different, as she is a goddess.) After visiting the Cycle – apparently a physical phenomenon within the Paths of the Dead, in addition to a somewhat metaphorical construct by which the succession of the Imperial throne is guided – Vlad figures out a way out. He uses an immense and improvised witchcraft ritual – the one that he has been casting across the chapter beginnings for the entire book – as witchcraft works within the Paths while sorcery does not. The ritual summons the vial of goddess’ blood to himself from his home; he then injects the blood into Morrolan, overcoming the blood-borne restrictions on leaving the Paths, and enables the entire party to successfully leave.
The Taltos Synthesis
Vlad is a character of contradictions, and in many cases it’s hard to say that one side of the contradiction is Vlad’s “thesis” while another is his “antithesis”. But in some cases, there are specific parts that he consciously identifies with. Vlad sees himself as an Easterner – but, as we learned in Jhereg, he has the soul of a Dragaeran, and Teckla demonstrated that he doesn’t identify strongly with the other Easterners in Adrilankha. His hatred of Dragaerans as a general class is one of his major motivations – but he has surrounded himself with Dragaeran allies from a very young age, and frequently risks his life for them. Vlad is already the synthesis of the various opposing ideas that he embodies.
The climax of the story is Vlad’s successful use of witchcraft, an art strongly tied to his Easterner identity, while stuck in the Dragaeran afterlife, in order to save the life of a Dragaeran whom he had originally hated when they met. It’s a microcosm of the contradictions that make up Vlad’s character; while the climax doesn’t exactly resolve any of Vlad’s internal tensions, it demonstrates that in the end his notions of self-identity are less important to him than doing his best to help and protect the people he feels responsible for. So be it; he contains multitudes.
Other interesting notes
- Even before Vlad had met any of his powerful allies, he knew Kiera the Thief, having originally met her when he was eleven. The things we learn about her later (and that we’ve already learned about Vlad) suggest that she had a good idea of what lay ahead of him already, but the foresight she shows in this particular case is impressive.
- Sethra suggests in her knowing way that Vlad name the golden chain, but provides no further reasons; she is obviously already aware of the item’s potential (which it doesn’t show fully for at least a few more books, if I recall correctly).
- Between this book and Phoenix, we get the distinct impression that the gods in general, and Verra in particular, are far more fallible than most people consider gods to be. This is not reassuring.
- Vlad meets multiple interesting characters in the Halls of Judgement, including Baritt (whose death was a minor plot point in Yendi), Kieron (founder of the Dragaeran Empire and his past-life brother), and Devera (Aliera’s as-yet-unborn daughter, who also briefly appeared in Yendi when Vlad spent a few minutes dead).
When Verra closes a door, she opens a window, which happens to be a portal into another dimension, or something. Phoenix has Vlad standing upon the threshold of his life…
May 5th, 2016 — Books
“I don’t need advice on my marriage from a Verra-be-damned… no, I suppose I do, don’t I? All right. What would you do?”
“Ummm… I’d tell her if I had two teckla I’d give her one.”
Teckla is the third Vlad Taltos novel, published in 1987. Chronologically, it takes place right after Jhereg.
I had hoped to get this posted in time for May Day (aka International Worker’s Day), but so it goes.
Teckla are small, mousy rodents. Dead teckla are one of Loiosh’s favorite snacks (and this appears to go for other jheregs as well).
Frightened teckla hides in grass…
The House of the Teckla comprises the vast majority of Dragaerans. Teckla is the house of the peasantry and the working class; out of seventeen Houses they are the only ones not to be considered “noble”. Anyone – Dragaeran or Easterner – may join the House of the Teckla by swearing fealty to a Dragaeran noble (i.e. any member of the other sixteen Houses); most Teckla work as tenant farmers, enlisted/conscripted soldiers, or other jobs where the main need is simply lots of bodies. Teckla are widely considered to be cowardly and subservient; their only advantage seems to be population, which the Teckla maintain with a relatively high rate of fertility.
Vlad is flush with the money from his assassination of Mellar and is contemplating what to do with it (a castle for Cawti, perhaps?); he’s realized he may not need to work (or “work”) anymore. He discovers that his wife is working with a group of dissidents in South Adrilankha (where most of the city’s Easterners live), when one of her compatriots, Gregory, arrives at his home to tell Cawti that another of their group, Franz has been killed. It turns out that Franz was killed by the Jhereg (specifically on the orders of Herth, the Jhereg boss who runs South Adrilankha), because of the group’s interference in Jhereg criminal activities.
Vlad gets drawn into the conflict through Cawti’s involvement, in a few ways. He is concerned about her safety, because he assumes that sooner or later either the Empire will show up to put them all down or the Jhereg will continue killing them individually. As he is certain that the group has no chance to change anything, he believes that Cawti is risking her life to no end. This concern is cemented when he is tortured by Herth’s people himself because of his connection to the group, and after his people rescue him from the torture he becomes aware of an assassin who intends to kill him.
Vlad spends much of the novel either tailing his wife to try to protect her, or arguing with her comrades about their grievances and goals. He sees Kelly’s group as hopeless idealists who are endangering Cawti’s life with their naivete; they see him as an amoral, money-driven killer. The fact that the dissidents win a small victory during a protest over some murdered Easterners – convincing the Empress to agree to investigate the murders and withdraw the Phoenix Guards sent to break up the protest – only convinces Vlad further that the movement is doomed. Cawti is furious with Vlad’s interference, and he tries repeatedly to convince her that she should abandon the cause.
As tensions in South Adrilankha continue to increase, and as his relationship with Cawti continues to degrade, Vlad’s behavior becomes more erratic. At one point he arrives at Kelly’s headquarters intending to murder Kelly and his staff in order to decapitate the nascent revolution and end Cawti’s involvement, but he is stopped by the ghost of Franz, who seems content with the upheaval his death has caused (and the fact that his comrades were able to use it to rally others).
After Vlad incites tensions further by breaking up some of Herth’s criminal activities while blaming it on Kelly, he forges an invitation from Kelly to Herth to draw both Herth and his hired assassin out. The assassin is killed by one of Vlad’s men as Vlad confronts Herth in Kelly’s office, but Kelly convinces Vlad not to kill him. In the process, Vlad has to face the fact that the discussions he’s had over the past few days have exposed a side of him he hasn’t wanted to acknowledge – he is the amoral killer Kelly accused him of being.
Vlad walks away from the conflict not sure how either his troubles with Cawti or his war with Herth is going to end, but then he realizes he can use the money from his assassination of Mellar to buy Herth out, taking control of South Adrilankha himself. Cawti comes back and agrees to try to work their problems out; it’s clear they’re not out of the woods yet, but they at least reach something of an understanding.
The Teckla Thesis
Let me preface this with a bit of a story. When I first read Teckla, in 2005 or so, I was convinced that Vlad was the protagonist of this story. It’s his series, right? He’s the one making the heroic decisions. Clearly the people set in opposition to him – both the Jhereg trying to kill the revolutionists, and the revolutionists futilely trying to overthrow the Empire – are in the wrong.
Since then, I’ve matured as a reader, and I’ve also learned more about the author’s politics. Teckla addresses Steven Brust’s politics more directly than any of his other novels (or at least, those others that I’ve read so far). Per his website, Brust self-identifies as a “Trotskyist sympathizer”. A full discussion of Trotskyism is beyond the scope of this post, but I think that understanding that Trotskyists believe in international socialist revolution and the dissolution of the state is sufficient for the purposes of discussing Teckla. But even discarding authorial intent (which I try not to put much stock in anyway), I feel like I understand the statements of the text itself much more clearly now – and Vlad doesn’t come out looking very good this time around.
Teckla are known to be cowardly and subservient. To be Teckla is to spend your life serving the interests of other, more powerful people – and to accept your lot without complaint. We meet a few different Teckla mixed in among the Easterner revolutionists, but the most Teckla-ish character in the novel is Vlad. Most of his behavior in Teckla is driven by fear – fearing for his own life, fearing for Cawti’s, and fearing what he’ll see if he examines himself too closely. His arguments with the revolutionists (including his fights with Cawti) mostly consist of Vlad defending, or declaring the impossibility of changing, the status quo, which includes his own subservience to the Jhereg Organization as well as the Easterners’ and Teckla’s subservience to every other Dragaeran in the Empire.
The Teckla Antithesis
The antithesis of the Teckla behavior is to fight for what you believe in. If society puts you in a disadvantaged position, don’t just passively accept it – push back and try to make things better. Even if the chances of success are low; even if it could cost you your life. This is what Kelly, Cawti, Franz, and the rest of the dissidents are doing, and this is what Vlad cannot accept.
Another Teckla antithesis is holding and wielding power and authority. Paresh, a Teckla and one of Kelly’s group, tells a story about a fire that ravaged his master’s territory. Paresh went to the castle and found everyone dead, and began ruling the castle himself, as well as teaching himself sorcery from the library full of tomes his former master had kept. A year later, another noble came calling and chased Paresh out of the castle – but not before being surprised by Paresh’s skill with sorcery. He lost the castle then, and the authority over it that he had briefly claimed, but the power he gained from his study of sorcery remained. Though Paresh remains a Teckla, his desire for the ability of self-determination – as much its own sort of power as sorcery – sets him apart from the stereotypical Teckla.
(For Jhereg and Yendi, I used the House of the Dragon as the antithesis example, and it would be applicable here too – if anything, Dragons and Teckla are even more opposed than Dragons and Yendi are. But the Dragons don’t have much if any presence in this story, and Kelly’s organization exemplifies the antithesis sufficiently themselves.)
The climax of Teckla is the confrontation triggered by Vlad drawing Herth to Kelly’s office under false pretenses. Vlad has been acting out of fear for the entire book, and he believes that killing Herth is the only way to resolve the conflict in which he has involved himself. Vlad’s typical response to fear is to lash out, often unwisely, but he has enough skill to prevent that tendency from putting him in more danger than he can handle. So, shortly after Herth enters Kelly’s office, Vlad is there and Herth’s bodyguards are dead, incapacitated, or otherwise out of the fight. Despite his cowardice, Vlad is still willing to fight for something, and stabbing people that have offended him (or are in the service of those who have offended him, or have simply appeared to be a threat) is easier than self-reflection at this point. After all, he’s much more practiced in the former than the latter.
Kelly intervenes, saying that Herth is “our enemy”, not Vlad’s. Whether he means the revolutionary organization or the Easterners of Adrilankha in general, he means to exclude Vlad; at this point, Kelly sees Vlad as no better than any other noble Dragaeran. But despite the confrontation that he’s been leading so far, Kelly believes that there must be a way for Vlad to ensure Herth doesn’t come after him without murder.
On the axis between Teckla cowardice and the anti-Teckla courage of one’s convictions, Vlad splits the difference here. He is brave enough to acknowledge that he is imperfect and selfish, but still lacks the courage to examine himself in detail. He hides from himself even as he curses Kelly for forcing him to face himself: “I respect you, and I respect what you’re doing, but you’ve diminished me in my own eyes, and in Cawti’s. I can’t forgive you for that.” He says he’d love to torture Herth, but then he simply threatens him with non-specific retribution if he tries anything, and walks away – which itself takes a certain sort of bravery.
Vlad’s buyout of Herth is almost an anti-climax, a somewhat convenient way of defusing the remaining danger. Along with everything else, it shows that there is a middle path between being too scared to try to make anything better and feeling like you can just fight your way out of the situation you’re in. Sometimes you have to compromise and seek a solution that everyone can walk away from.
Other interesting notes
- The novel is prefaced by a brief note of instruction from Vlad to a laundry and tailor shop about how to clean and repair various garments. The instructions are then split into seventeen parts to subtitle each chapter; each subtitle addresses some bit of damage or dirtiness that his clothes suffer during the events of that chapter. I presume that the launderers and tailors are themselves Teckla (though I don’t think it’s ever specified); the subtitles serve as a constant reminder that Vlad considers himself above the menial work with which most Teckla make their living. (Similarly, the preoccupation with ensuring every single cut or stain is repaired or cleaned is something that your typical Teckla likely has no time or money for.)
- The events of Teckla lead more-or-less directly into the events of Phoenix, which I’ll be discussing in a couple weeks. This is one of the cases where the chronology of the series (and/or the order of publication) is important; while reading Phoenix before Teckla isn’t completely impossible, there is a lot of context that would be difficult to pick up on the fly.
- Edited to add: On Twitter, @BarrenHillBaker points out a connection I had missed: the noble that comes calling on Paresh in the castle identifies himself as the Duke of Arylle. This is a title that holds some significance to the events of The Phoenix Guards, and Paresh’s description matches Aerich (one of the four titular guards of the book, and eventual holder of that duchy). This also reminded me of another connection that I had noticed myself but forgot to mention – the leader of the Phoenix Guards during Teckla is Khaavren himself, main protagonist of the Khaavren Romances (of which The Phoenix Guards is the first book). Taltos talks to him briefly while trying to defuse one of the conflicts between the Guards and the Easterner and Teckla protesters.
The fourth book in the series (by order of publication) is Taltos. Thus far we’ve discussed the thesis and antithesis for three specific Houses, but to continue that pattern, we’ll need to address the question: What does it mean to be Taltos?
April 27th, 2016 — News
“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…
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.
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.
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 Greymist. 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 Cawti, 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 war.
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.
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 hidden.
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.
The next book in publication order is Teckla. We’ll have a lot of politics to discuss, I suspect…
April 19th, 2016 — Books
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.
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.
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 Hand. 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.
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 Imperials.
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 harm 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.
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 pretext. 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.
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 jhereg.
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…
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.
Coming up next is the second book in the series: Yendi. Plots within plots…
April 14th, 2016 — Books
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.
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.
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.
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.
From the Wikipedia page on Steven Brust, as of April 2016:
I’ll link each of my book posts here as I write them.
- Jhereg (1983)
- Yendi (1984)
- Teckla (1987)
- Taltos (1988)
- Phoenix (1990)
- Athyra (1993)
- Orca (1996)
- Dragon (1998)
- Issola (2001)
- Dzur (2006)
- Jhegaala (2008)
- Iorich (2010)
- Tiassa (2011)
- Hawk (2014)
- Vallista (forthcoming)
- Jhereg (prologue)
- Dragon (main chapters)
- Dragon (interludes)
- Tiassa (part 1)
- Jhereg (main chapters)
- Tiassa (part 2)
- Tiassa (part 3)
Houses without namesake books (as of April 2016)
March 30th, 2016 — Books
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
- Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee
- Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer
- Chaos Choreography, Seanan McGuire
- Mechanical Failure, Joe Zieja
2016 Novellas (17,500 to 40,000 words):
- The Devil You Know, K.J. Parker
- Lustlocked, Matt Wallace
- Every Heart A Doorway, Seanan McGuire
- Izanami’s Choice, Adam Heine
- Run Time, S.B. Divya
2016 Novelettes (7,500 to 17,500 words):
2016 Short Stories (less than 7,500 words):
2016 Graphic Novels:
- Saga, volume 6, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Non-2016 works read in 2016:
- Karen Memory, Elizabeth Bear
- Aftermath, Chuck Wendig
- The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson
- Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, Lois McMaster Bujold (review)
- The Just City, Jo Walton
- The Last Witness, K. J. Parker
- “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn”, Usman T. Malik
- “Waters of Versailles”, Kelly Robson
- Envy of Angels, Matt Wallace
- Wings of Sorrow and Bone, Beth Cato
- “Fabulous Beasts”, Priya Sharma
- “Islands Off the Coast of Capitola, 1978”, David Herter
- The Thyme Fiend, Jeffrey Ford
- “Please Undo This Hurt”, Seth Dickinson
- “Damage”, David D. Levine
- “Oral Argument”, Kim Stanley Robinson
- “Schrödinger’s Gun”, Ray Wood
- “Tear Tracks”, Malka Older
- “Ginga”, Daniel José Older
- “The Language of Knives”, Haralambi Markov
- “Elephants and Corpses”, Kameron Hurley
- “The Shape of My Name”, Nino Cipri
- “At the End of Babel”, Michael Livingston
- “The Log Goblin”, Brian Staveley
- “Ballroom Blitz”, Veronica Schanoes
- “The Ways of Walls and Words”, Sabrina Vourvoulias
- Unsung Villains, Missy Meyer
- Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen, Garth Nix (in progress)
- Made to Kill, Adam Christopher
- The Book of Jhereg, Steven Brust (Jhereg/Yendi/Teckla omnibus)
- The Book of Taltos, Steven Brust (Taltos/Phoenix omnibus)
- Uprooted, Naomi Novik
- Last First Snow, Max Gladstone
- The Book of Athyra, Steven Brust (Athyra/Orca omnibus)
- Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow
- The Usual Path to Publication, ed. Shannon Page
- Palimpsest, Catherynne Valente (review)
- Saga, volumes 1 through 5, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
- The Wicked and the Divine, vol. 1: The Faust Act, Kieron Gillen et al
- Sex Criminals, vol. 1: One Weird Trick, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
- Ms. Marvel, vol. 1: No Normal, G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona
- The Book of Dragon, Steven Brust (Dragon/Issola omnibus) (in progress)