Entries Tagged 'News' ↓
December 5th, 2016 — News
We finally got some good news yesterday; the Army Corp of Engineers has denied Dakota Access a necessary permit for the pipeline at Standing Rock, and they intend to issue an Environmental Impact Statement. Alternate routes for the pipeline will be considered. The fight isn’t completely over, but this is an important victory nevertheless.
Last Week: Trans Lifeline
Thanks to donors Maria E., Eric A., and Rebekah C., we donated a total of $330 to Trans Lifeline! Maria included a note as well:
I would like this to be in honor of a brave friend of mine, “MB”, who was very open about his transition in order to help others not feel so alone. He brings light and strength and love to this world.
This Week: ACLU
The past few days have seen a number of alarming statements from Trump. His baseless assertion that millions of votes were cast illegally is a pretext for continuing the voter suppression efforts that already disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of people, while his desire to not only jail flag-burners but also strip their citizenship displays ignorance of, or indifference to, our First Amendment rights.
More than ever, during the Trump administration we will need the American Civil Liberties Union working to protect our rights. The ACLU’s efforts in court cases, legislative advocacy, and public outreach help defend the civil rights of all Americans.
Because of the fact that some of the ACLU’s efforts include lobbying, donations to the ACLU itself are not tax-deductible. However, donations to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible; those gifts support everything except the lobbying efforts. You can read more about the difference here; for the purposes of Matching Monday (and my usual $100 match) I’ll happily consider donations to either entity. Forward your donation receipts to email@example.com.
If you’d like another way to help, artist Mary Capaldi is selling some beautiful enamel pins with 25% of the price going to the ACLU, through next February. If you love butterflies, art pins, and/or civil rights, this is a great way to contribute, get something pretty, and support an independent artist at the same time!
Call to Action
A friend of mine created a Social Activism Advent Calendar for December. We’re a couple days in, but it’s never too late to start! The linked PDF is full of ideas (and links to other similar resources) for things you can do every single day – including attending local events, donating to charities, educating yourself on the issues, and doing things to protect yourself as needed.
November 28th, 2016 — News
Week three, and I’m heartened to see that we’re still fighting. My greatest fear is that we will collectively normalize Trump’s behavior – that we’ll start acting like this is just the way things are now, rather than continuing to push back against what is already proving to be the most corrupt administration in the history of this country.
Last Week: SPLC
Thanks to donors Maria E., Tina H., Lorna Q., Jami K., and Eric A., we donated a total of $410 to the Southern Poverty Law Center in Steve Bannon’s honor. The SPLC has its own matching program going on as well at the moment, including a double match for Giving Tuesday that started sometime last week, so our total impact is somewhere around a thousand dollars. Let’s keep it up!
This Week: Trans Lifeline
Transgender people were already at significantly higher risk of suicide than the general population before November 8th, and Trump’s election has compounded the problem. In addition to the transphobia and hate crimes that Trump’s campaign has stoked and emboldened, transgender people now also face threats to their medical treatment, thanks to the Republican promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act; both of these dangers have resulted in a sudden increase in transgender suicides.
Trans Lifeline is a crisis hotline for transgender people. While their primary focus is on preventing suicide and self-harm, they are open for any transgender person in need. The line is staffed by transgender people, so callers know they can talk to someone else who understands their experiences.
This week, rather than making donations in honor of one of the transphobes in the upcoming administration, I’d like to keep the focus on the memories of the loved ones we have lost, and on the experiences of those who remain. When you forward your donation receipts to firstname.lastname@example.org, if you’d like to add a sentence or two about the person or people you honored with your donation, I’ll include your note in next week’s wrap-up post. (I’ll match the first $100 in donations.)
Calls to Action
The spreadsheet I linked last week now has a script for calling to support the protesters in North Dakota who are fighting against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Army has announced plans to “close” the lands the protesters are occupying on December 6th and restrict protests to a “free speech zone”, in violation of treaties and the First Amendment, so the tribes gathered at Standing Rock need our support now more than ever.
Beyond that, if you are able, I’ll ask you to stand up for someone. If you see someone being abused because of who they are – whether verbally or physically, whether online or off – do what you can to protect them. Make sure that both the abuser and their target know that electing a hateful bigot and misogynist to the Presidency doesn’t make harassment and abuse okay. (This is something I’m still working on myself, since social anxiety makes confrontation difficult for me – but even just drawing the victim into a more positive conversation can help stop harassment.)
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…
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.
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…
March 18th, 2016 — News
Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is Lois McMaster Bujold’s latest novel of the Vorkosigan Saga, and it is one of my recent favorites from the series. It is also practically impossible to talk about without discussing plot details from earlier in the series – this is perhaps the least stand-alone Vorkosigan book yet, steeped as it is in the history of its characters. So, stop reading now if you haven’t at least finished Cryoburn, the end of which I will be spoiling shortly.
I’ll also be discussing Gentleman Jole’s plot in more detail a little later, but I’ll warn you before I get into anything that isn’t apparent within the first chapter or two of the book. Ready? Here we go.
Cryoburn was one of my least favorite books in the series, but its ending makes it hugely important: its themes of handling mortality and death are capped off by Miles learning of the death of his father, Aral Vorkosigan, who has stood astride Barrayaran history like a colossus for the last forty years. Aral served as Admiral, Regent, and Prime Minister of Barrayar, as well as Count Vorkosigan, and Miles’s entire life had been lived under that shadow. But naturally, Miles is far from the only one to be affected by Aral’s death. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen examines the echoes of Aral’s life and the shape of the hole he left in his passing by returning to the viewpoint character that started off the entire series, and perhaps the only person who grokked Aral in fullness: Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, Aral’s widow and the Vicereine of Sergyar.
Cordelia isn’t the only protagonist, though. The narrative flows relatively fluidly between her and the other main character of the story, Admiral Oliver Jole. (Jole was first introduced in The Vor Game, though I had honestly forgotten about his existence until this book.) And as not only an old friend of the Vorkosigans but also the senior Barrayaran military officer in Sergyar space, the former Viceroy’s passing left a hole both personal and professional in Jole’s life as well. Aral has been dead for three years by now, but his ghost is essentially the third main character of the book.
(And here is where the spoilers for the latest book begin. You have been warned.)
In fact, Jole’s relationship with the Vorkosigans is much more profound than we had been able to see from Miles’ point of view in The Vor Game. Gentleman Jole opens with Jole in his role as Admiral greeting Vicereine Cordelia upon her return to Sergyar space, and they arrange for a more unofficial reunion – whereupon the reader learns that Jole was, for many years, effectively the third person in the Vorkosigans’ marriage. And Cordelia has a proposal for him: she is going to use some frozen gametes to have some more daughters, and offers her former co-spouse the use of her “eggshells” (i.e. enucleated ova) and Aral’s X-chromosome-bearing gametes so that Jole could have sons by Aral.
Cordelia’s return to Jole’s life, her offer, and the emotions redeveloping between them naturally turn his life upside down (in a way that only entanglements with Vorkosigans can), and the bulk of the novel is the two of them navigating the new opportunities that they see in front of them and the memories they have behind them. The story is, at heart, a romance; it is clear well before the midpoint that Cordelia and Jole will rekindle their relationship, but the questions of how and for how long remain open.
The structure and setting of this book – a romance between Cordelia and a Barrayaran admiral taking place on and above the planet Sergyar – mirror that of Shards of Honor, the very first book of the series, and in that way I see Gentleman Jole as a bookend to the series, wrapping up the story of Cordelia and Aral with a bow and a happily-ever-after (at least to the extent that Aral can get such an ending posthumously).
Which leads me to the question: is this the end of the Vorkosigan Saga? It very well could be. If so, I found it an extremely satisfying one, both structurally for the series and as a story in its own right. Cordelia Vorkosigan is one of my favorite characters – not only in this series, but across all of science fiction – and she deserves all the happiness that this ending gives her.
March 18th, 2016 — News
See also my 2015 reading list for all the fiction I chose from. Nominations are in no particular order (though mostly in the order in which I read them).
- The Flux, Ferrett Steinmetz
- Apex, Ramez Naam
- Seveneves, Neal Stephenson
- Karen Memory, Elizabeth Bear
- The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson
- Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Kai Ashante Wilson
- Binti, Nnedi Okorafor
- The Last Witness, K. J. Parker
- “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn”, Usman T. Malik
- Envy of Angels, Matt Wallace
- “Fabulous Beasts”, Priya Sharma
Best Short Story
- “Variations on an Apple”, Yoon Ha Lee
- “Some Gods of El Paso”, Maria Dahvana Headley
- “Damage”, David D. Levine
- “Oral Argument”, Kim Stanley Robinson
- “Schrödinger’s Gun”, Ray Wood
Best Related Work
- Writing Excuses, Season 10, Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells
- The Wheel of Time Companion, Robert Jordan, Harriet McDougal, Alan Romanczuk, Maria Simons
Best Graphic Story
- Schlock Mercenary: Delegates and Delegation, Howard Tayler
- Gunnerkrigg Court, Tom Siddell
- Erfworld, Rob Balder, Xin Ye, Laura Ahonen
- Order of the Stick, Rich Burlew
Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)
- Inside Out
- Mad Max: Fury Road
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)
Best Editor (Long Form)
- Marco Palmieri
- Beth Meacham
- Lee Harris
- Joe Monti
- Harriet McDougal
Best Professional Editor (Short Form)
- Ellen Datlow
- Ann VanderMeer
- Liz Gorinsky
- Beth Meacham
- Carl Engle-Laird
Best Professional Artist
Best Fan Writer
Best Fan Artist
John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer
- Andy Weir (for The Martian)
Remaining categories to be filled in soon!
August 27th, 2015 — News
I’ve decided to start doing some long-form blogging, and I’m going to repurpose Pyrlogos to do so. The comics won’t be going away, but the Comicpress theme will, and I’ll be editing the posts to include image links to comics (or whatever I need to do to make them appear reasonably in the archives).
Just so you know. Changes inbound. See you on the proverbial flipside…
July 28th, 2010 — News
It’s been hard to figure out how to approach the subject; I’m still not quite sure just how “done” I am with Pyrlogos I am right now. The world still interests me; the story still interests me; the characters still won’t get out of my head. But I’ve been pretty deeply unsatisfied with the way I’ve written the story so far, and trying to figure out how to address that has been one of the things I was hoping for a few months to resolve so I could move on with the comic. But it’s not happening, and my immediate priorities have moved on to other things, and it’s time I admit that Pyrlogos is essentially dead at this point.
I’m not done with Pyrlogos, as a whole – but I’m not really convinced I’m capable of telling the story as a serial comic at this point. I hope to pick up the project again some day, in some incarnation or another, and when I do I’ll be posting about it here. But for now, well, I don’t have any plans to continue it in its current state.
Thanks for reading, and sorry for leaving things like this.
October 12th, 2009 — News
Page 029 is mostly done, but between sleeping issues and trying to rework my schedule to accomodate the curling season starting, I haven’t quite been able to finish it. It should be up by Wednesday at the latest.
In related news, Pyrlogos updates are going to be about this spotty for another few weeks, until I can get things to settle down again. If you don’t want to have to check the site and see no new updates, we do have an RSS feed you can use…