Thinking About Dragaera: Introduction

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

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

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

The Books, the World, and Their Structure

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

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

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

The Seventeen Theses

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

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

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

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

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

Upcoming Posts

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

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

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

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



The Races

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

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

The Houses

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

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

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

The Books

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

Publication Order

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

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

Chronological Order

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

Houses without namesake books (as of April 2016)

  • Lyorn
  • Tsalmoth
  • Chreotha

1 comment so far ↓

#1 Daniel Hiatt on 05.06.16 at 1:33 pm

Thank you so much for this. Looking forward to catching up on these. I had no clue that each Taltos book had 17 numbered chapters… and I’ve reread most of them several times.

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