“He steals the thing, Morrolan accuses him of stealing the thing, he gets outraged.”
“Oh. Is he a Dragon or a Yendi?”
“They aren’t all that different, Vlad.” I started to speak, but Kragar quickly said, “I should qualify that. Yendi are like that all the time, but a Dragon on a campaign is capable of subtlety when necessary.”
Dragon is the eighth Vlad Taltos book, published in 1998. The bulk of the action takes place early in Vlad’s career (after Taltos and before Yendi), but the interludes and epilogue take place after Yendi; the events of Dragon were in part precipitated by the conspiracy discovered in Yendi.
The dragons of Dragaera mostly live in mountains. Unlike typical Western-mythology dragons, they neither breathe fire nor fly, but they do have prehensile, psychically-sensitive tentacles around their necks.
So far in the series, I think we’ve seen more Dragons than any other Dragaeran House except the Jhereg. Morrolan and Aliera are both Dragons, as well as Cawti’s former partner, Norathar, who is now the Dragon Heir. Vlad’s lieutenant Kragar is a former Dragon, though he doesn’t like to talk about it much. Sethra the Younger is also a Dragonlord; while we don’t know the House of her mentor, Sethra Lavode, her multiple stints as Warlord at least indicate a Dragonish tendency.
Dragons hold both honor and warfare in high esteem, and are eager to use the latter to prove the former. They take insults seriously and generally respond with bloodshed, though they are not, generally, as quick to anger as Dzur. Dragonlords seek military power rather than political power; the various intrigues in previous books have shown that most Dragons would much rather be Warlord than Emperor.
As I discussed in the post about Jhereg, perhaps the biggest difference between Dragons and Jhereg is in their opinions on what constitutes proper circumstances and methods for killing people. Dragons are happy to lead thousands of soldiers to their deaths in battle (or to be one of said thousands of soldiers), but consider an individual assassination to be dishonorable, and killing someone for money to be anathema. Similarly, dying in battle brings one a unique type of honor in the eyes of one’s fellow Dragons.
The narrative in Dragon follows three threads. The beginning of each chapter (and the entirety of chapter 17) relate Vlad’s experience in the Battle of Baritt’s Tomb; in the tradition of war tales, he starts that story with “No shit, there I was…” In each chapter except the last, some prompt or another triggers memories of how he ended up in that battle in the first place, and the bulk of each chapter covers those events in order from the beginning. Three interludes plus an epilogue cover a separate sequence of events that happen much later (after the events of Yendi). Brust’s fondness for playing around with narrative structures is clearly evident here. But to make this synopsis comprehensible, I’ll start in order from the beginning.
Vlad has apparently been relating his memories to some sort of metal box, and in fact Vlad’s first-person narrative is directed at said “odd, shiny contraption with presumed ears at both ends” as well. We don’t get a lot of details about who has paid Vlad to talk to the box, or what the box actually is,1That said, the hints seem to point at Sethra Lavode; I can’t think of anyone else who has both shown interest in Vlad’s life and likely has the technology to record his memories. but he’s telling the story three years later.
Morrolan has sent a message asking to hire Vlad (preferred as an alternative to his method of getting Vlad’s attention in Taltos). Baritt has died, which Vlad saw coming, having already met his shade on the Paths of the Dead. Baritt had a large collection of Morganti weapons; Morrolan expects theft and wants Vlad to be able to trace the stolen weapons. Vlad inspects Baritt’s estate, but finds himself unable to enter the room full of Morganti weapons; on Kragar’s suggestion, he brings in Daymar to help tone down their effect. In the process, Daymar casually mind-probes Vlad (to which Vlad reacts threateningly), and then suggests setting up a psychic trace for anyone entering the room.
The theft happens soon thereafter; a Dragonlord named Fornia has stolen one of the weapons with the apparent intent of provoking war with Morrolan. Then some of Fornia’s men try to intimidate Vlad out of the situation, which of course makes him determined to put one over on Fornia however he can; the ensuing fight results in Vlad recuperating at Castle Black. Rather than staying out of it, Vlad is now determined to see Fornia punished.
Morrolan asks Vlad to accompany him on a trip that turns out to be a visit to the Serioli.2The Serioli were also responsible for the creation of Morganti weapons, as an attempt to make war too horrible to contemplate. As Morrolan points out, it worked – for the Serioli. The Serioli greets the five of them – Morrolan, Vlad, Loiosh, Blackwand, and, obliquely, Spellbreaker. Spellbreaker is someday to become a Great Weapon3“Remover of aspects of deity”, which Morrolan summarizes as “Godslayer”, but is not yet; first another Great Weapon4“Artifact in sword form that searches for an object of desire when the path is true”, which readers may recognize as having been translated more succinctly as “Pathfinder”… must be found. The two were/are to be created together, but the Serioli can’t clarify the temporal confusion any further. The Serioli also refers to Vlad as being of “the Old People”, or rather, of the “people from the small invisible lights”.5The implication seems to be that the Easterners – Vlad’s race – originally came from a distant star, and are an older race than either the Dragaerans or the Serioli. The brief discussion of Great Weapon history/future seems to be all that Morrolan came for, and the three (or five) of them return to Castle Black.
Vlad reports to Captain Cropper’s company within Morrolan’s army, assembling beneath Castle Black. He has a bit of trouble adjusting to military standards of deference. He meets his Dragon squadmates – Virt, Napper, Aelburr, and their corporal, Rascha – and begins learning the routines. Vlad has to get used to drum calls, maneuvers, and the other routines of army life. He mentions to Virt that he’s not used to being treated civilly by Dragons, having introduced himself as a Jhereg; Virt says “it’s taken some effort” and points out that they’re all going to be relying on each other to not get each other killed. Vlad’s squadmates’ reasons for volunteering in the army range from personal to professional, but Virt is surprised to learn that Vlad’s reason is a personal grudge against the opposing commander. Between that and his Jhereg title, they are starting to understand that he’s an unusual soldier.
They move out the next day, and of course it starts raining. While there are a lot of military practices Vlad never quite takes to, complaining comes naturally. The weather, the food, the marching, the fact that the Captain gets a horse6Vlad mentions that he hasn’t seen much of horses before; I suppose that’s one part of the taltos legend that doesn’t relate to Vlad., the tedium of guard duty, on and on. Eventually the army reaches a position they intend to hold, and Vlad is asked by Morrolan and Cropper to help delay the attack they expect in the morning. Vlad sneaks into the enemy camp and steals eleven of their banners.
The enemy attack is indeed delayed, and Vlad starts planning ways to get out of the battle – but he realizes he can’t run while Virt is watching. He gets wounded in the battle, but earns some respect from his squadmates in the process; not long after he’s stitched up, the army is on the move again. Eventually they get a moment to breathe and hold services for the soldiers who died in the battle, whose bodies will be sent to Deathsgate Falls.
A few days of marching and waiting later, Vlad discusses the distinction between Dragon and Jhereg notions of killing with Virt. Vlad thinks Dragon killing is too impersonal, done in bulk. Virt notes that Jheregs have people killed for business, and that fighting over control of a brothel or over a barony is just a difference of scale. Vlad eventually understands that a Dragon’s “enjoyment” of war isn’t all that different than Vlad’s enjoyment of seeing the various parts of an assassination plan come together well.
Another imminent battle means another mission, and Vlad takes the rest of his squad with him to torch the enemy’s supply wagons. In the next morning’s battle, Vlad’s squad survives multiple assaults with only a couple minor injuries. While Vlad felt like he understood the context of the army’s earlier actions, he has begun to wonder what they’re doing, and the narrative flashes forward to a conversation he has with Sethra Lavode about it; we see another viewpoint of war and assassination being similar in terms of how attention to detail and keeping things simple helps you succeed. On the other hand, Vlad notes that running an army and running an Organization are still fairly different.
The final battle approaches, and Morrolan describes Vlad’s last task: to take the stolen sword from Fornia during the battle. Dragon honor holds that taking the sword during the battle is appropriate, while thievery is not. Vlad is confused and annoyed by the seemingly arbitrary difficulties being forced upon him. During the battle, Vlad’s military experience grows, as he has to participate in multiple charges, and learns that the time he has spent with his comrades makes it very difficult to abandon them in battle. Suddenly, Vlad is in bed; it turns out that he took a spell to the back and woke up a couple days later. The battle is still going on, but Vlad is out of it for the time being. He never quite recovers the full memory.
Vlad goes for a walk the night before the battle concludes, and wonders whether the only difference between himself and a Dragonlord like Morrolan is the amount of power they are able to wield – and what that meant about the rank-and-file Dragons like his squadmates. He is unsatisfied with his answers, or Loiosh’s answer that Dragons are the way they are because they can’t help it. He also encounters the Necromancer, in what seems to be a dream state (as Loiosh didn’t see her at all), and she heals him somewhat.
Late in the battle, Vlad is finally able to leave his unit to seek out Fornia directly. This is the part of the story that is being told in the first few paragraphs of each chapter, before memory takes him back into the rest of the story. He approaches Fornia, and Daymar arrives (through or around Fornia’s teleport block). Vlad surrenders to avoid being killed, trusting in Dragon honor; meanwhile, Daymar mind-probes Fornia at Vlad’s request and as a result Vlad understands Fornia’s plan: to draw Morrolan into single combat in order to draw out the Great Weapon he believes is hiding within the sword he stole.
Morrolan’s arrival on the scene, while somewhat part of Fornia’s plan, still throws everything into chaos. Fornia fails to notice Vlad’s approach from behind until too late, and Vlad’s strike (with one of his dead squadmates’ swords, not at all his usual weapon) takes off both of Fornia’s hands. The battle is effectively over at that point, though Vlad does run away from Fornia’s honor guard – and meets up with Sethra Lavode in the process, who helpfully tells him that he should have run earlier when it would have done any good. She asks Vlad whether he understands Dragons any better than he did before; he says no, but she disagrees. After the dead and the living are honored, Vlad returns home.
Tomorrow I’d go back to making crime; it was so much kinder than war.
The interludes and epilogue are set years later. Sethra the Younger had recovered the sword after Vlad disarmed Fornia, and wants to exchange it for Kieron’s Greatsword, held by Aliera. She asks Vlad to act as go-between for the negotiations, and while he is reluctant at first, Cawti convinces him to do so for Aliera’s sake. Aliera believes the Great Weapon has been finding its way to her, and to deny it would be to invite further trouble. She and Sethra meet at Vlad’s home, where her reaction to Sethra’s request for the sword of Kieron is “come take it”. Between scenes, Morrolan breaks up the ensuing fight (at Vlad’s urgent, psychic request), also causing Pathfinder to be released from the sword Sethra bought. Aliera takes up Pathfinder, leaves Kieron’s broadsword by Sethra’s unconscious body, and Vlad finally puts the entire incident behind him after one more session with the weird metal box.
The Dragon Thesis
When discussing Jhereg, I described the Jhereg and Dragon Houses – and their theses – as being opposed over the question of the appropriate methods and motivations for killing others. Dragon returns to that topic, again by contrast with the Jhereg, but this time we see much more of the Dragon point of view.
For methods, warfare is okay but assassination is not. Single combat, face to face with both combatants armed and ready, is fine; attacking someone whose guard is down is simply not done. Even in the middle of battle, there are niceties to be observed; Napper objects to Vlad’s plan to attack Fornia’s group from behind without so much as a yell to warn them.
As for motivations, Dragons kill for honor, or to right a wrong; they also kill for simple glory, though at a larger scale than the Dzur do, and the glory they attain is still limited and governed by Dragon notions of the propriety of their killing. The war is precipitated, more or less deliberately, by both Fornia’s theft of the proto-Great Weapon, and by his understanding that a public accusation of theft would be an insult that must be answered with warfare. That said, Morrolan’s and Sethra’s ultimate motivations are more far-reaching – the goal they seek to attain with war is, in fact, peace, and most Dragons will claim to have similarly lofty ideals underpinning their martial nature.
The Dragon notion of honor in combat is, to some extent, performative. Sethra and Morrolan need to defeat Fornia not only to recover the sword he stole, but also to make a very public point to other Dragonlords contemplating opposing them. At the same time, Dragons restrain their conduct during war – e.g. not abusing prisoners – not only as a point of honor but also because keeping those conventions intact ensures they will benefit from them as well if their situations are ever reversed. Dragon duels of honor are similarly about demonstrating your virtue not only to your opponent but also to Dragaeran society as a whole.
The antithesis to the Dragon point of view is again the Jhereg approach. Vlad argues with Morrolan several times over more expedient ways to recover the sword and prevent or end the war; Vlad of course prefers the theft and/or assassination approaches for both speed and efficiency, but Morrolan’s Dragon honor requires that he instead spend hundreds if not thousands of lives to resolve the issue. As in Jhereg, Vlad is constrained by Morrolan’s sense of honor, this time because he is acting as a subordinate in Morrolan’s army, but he chafes at the restriction constantly.
Jhereg violence is also performative, to some extent. Assassinations aren’t done as a warning to the victim – barring revivification, it’s a little late for such a warning to be useful. Rather, the Jhereg murders are carried out as a signal to others that the person ordering the killing is not to be trifled with. The Jhereg also adhere to their own code, which forbids killing a target in their own home, for much the same reason as Dragons – once you break that rule, others may not feel compelled to follow it either, and suddenly you’re not safe in your own home anymore.
The synthesis between the Jhereg and Dragon viewpoints takes place in several ways. The methods of the two Houses are combined through Vlad’s nighttime excursions to sabotage the enemy; Vlad uses the skills he has honed as an assassin, but instead of murdering his enemies, he inconveniences them and buys his own army a few crucial hours. The story’s main climax, during which Fornia is defeated and the sword recovered, is accomplished through Vlad’s misdirection and his backstab of Ori combined with Morrolan’s martial prowess, capped off with Vlad using a Dragon’s broadsword in a very un-Dragonlike way.
The motivations behind the killing are also somewhat blended; while the war is prosecuted by Dragons under the constraints of Dragon honor, it is precipitated by a theft from the house of a recently-dead Dragonlord – an act so un-Dragonlike that to accuse a Dragon of it is itself a sufficient pretext for war. Fornia’s Jhereglike behavior is itself motivated by a desire for power, but that is a motivation common to both Houses.
A more abstract synthesis of viewpoint is also achieved throughout the story as Vlad comes to better understand how Dragons approach war. During his conversations with Sethra about the theory of warfare and the management of entire armies, Vlad compares the preparation and planning involved in a war to that required in an assassination, and sees more similarities than differences. As part of a squad in Morrolan’s army, Vlad experiences the boots-on-the-ground perspective of battle, and as he holds his own in the line of battle, he comes to be accepted by his Dragon squadmates. He develops respect for them in turn, and that respect and understanding motivates more Dragonlike behavior from him, to the point that he becomes extremely reluctant to leave them in the middle of battle, despite having originally planned to bug out at the first opportunity.
Vlad is also reluctant to admit that he’s learned anything, in a conversation with Aliera right after the battle:
“…But tell me: Do you understand us a little better now than you did when you signed up?”
“I think you do,” she said.
I didn’t answer, and presently she walked away. At least she didn’t salute.
Memory and Honor
Memory is also a major theme in Dragon.7As obvious statements go, this one ranks just below “This book features members of the House of the Dragon” – Chapter 1 is titled “Memory Is Like A Watchacallit”. As in Orca, the narration points to a context for Vlad telling the story; in this case, he is relating it to some kind of device meant for preserving his memories by recording his story.8We’ll get a little more context on this when we discuss Issola next… Accordingly, Vlad’s narration jumps around the sequence of events – each of the first sixteen chapters starts with him describing the climax of the Battle of Baritt’s Tomb before getting diverted, by some memory or another, back into the sequence of events that lead into the battle. Vlad remembers some things he had previously forgotten (including a detail about his trip to the Paths of the Dead; which detail, he does not say); he forgets other things, as the chaos of the battle and the wounds he takes leave him with gaps in his memory on multiple occasions.
The theme of memory isn’t just here to flavor the text and make the narrative structure more interesting. Memory is tightly tied into the idea of honor that the Dragons hold so dear. Your personal honor is about how you are known and remembered, both in life and in death. It is about your peers remembering the honorable things you have done – and about there being no dishonorable acts to remember, either. Dragaerans, living some two to three millennia, have long memories, and a stain on your honor may take hundreds or even thousands of years to repair. And certain Dragaerans have even longer memories than that; the undead Sethra Lavode is known to have lived for at least ten thousand years, and likely much longer, and one of her greatest advantages as a military commander is her long memory of battles and wars past.
Vlad’s actions during the war will be remembered by the Dragons he served with; to them, that defines his honor. This is even more true for the Dragons that fell in battle, whether their souls survived or not; the memory of their actions is all that is left, and each Dragon strives to ensure that they will be remembered well.
Other interesting notes
- “Javelin shooters” – i.e. bows, using fletched “javelins” that we would recognize as arrows – seem to be a somewhat esoteric technology on Dragaera. At least, Vlad doesn’t recognize them by name, and has to have the concept explained to him. This is an interesting departure from the usual fantasy milieu, where the bow and arrow is nearly as ubiquitous a weapon as the sword.
- During his recovery from the spell injury, Vlad asks whether there was a little girl on the battlefield. His squadmates say no, so apparently Vlad was the only person who saw Devera there.
- Baritt’s death was an assassination, carried out by Laris and ordered by the Sorceress in Green, after he broke with the other conspirators in the conspiracy that Vlad pulled apart in Yendi.
- We now understand better Sethra’s insistence on Vlad’s naming the artifact he took from Loraan – it will be a Great Weapon someday. Ironically, “Spellbreaker” won’t be its eventual name – but it’s still accurate, for the moment.
In Issola, we’ll encounter the second major turning point in Vlad’s arc, as well as a significant amount of cosmological exposition…
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||That said, the hints seem to point at Sethra Lavode; I can’t think of anyone else who has both shown interest in Vlad’s life and likely has the technology to record his memories.|
|2.||↑||The Serioli were also responsible for the creation of Morganti weapons, as an attempt to make war too horrible to contemplate. As Morrolan points out, it worked – for the Serioli.|
|3.||↑||“Remover of aspects of deity”, which Morrolan summarizes as “Godslayer”|
|4.||↑||“Artifact in sword form that searches for an object of desire when the path is true”, which readers may recognize as having been translated more succinctly as “Pathfinder”…|
|5.||↑||The implication seems to be that the Easterners – Vlad’s race – originally came from a distant star, and are an older race than either the Dragaerans or the Serioli.|
|6.||↑||Vlad mentions that he hasn’t seen much of horses before; I suppose that’s one part of the taltos legend that doesn’t relate to Vlad.|
|7.||↑||As obvious statements go, this one ranks just below “This book features members of the House of the Dragon” – Chapter 1 is titled “Memory Is Like A Watchacallit”.|
|8.||↑||We’ll get a little more context on this when we discuss Issola next…|