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.1Vlad mentions his Hawk friend Daymar as being similar to an Athyra at one point, but while Daymar has the same eccentric-intellectual personality as the stereotypical Athyra, he is more of a dilettante, and his unique capabilities as a sorcerer seem to owe more to his overwhelming raw power than to dedicated research.
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 voice2I speculate that this is Verra, who I think is still keeping an eye on Vlad, but I have no certain facts on this at the moment. 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.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Vlad mentions his Hawk friend Daymar as being similar to an Athyra at one point, but while Daymar has the same eccentric-intellectual personality as the stereotypical Athyra, he is more of a dilettante, and his unique capabilities as a sorcerer seem to owe more to his overwhelming raw power than to dedicated research.|
|2.||↑||I speculate that this is Verra, who I think is still keeping an eye on Vlad, but I have no certain facts on this at the moment.|