January 11th, 2017 — Books
“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, 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. The Serioli greets the five of them – Morrolan, Vlad, Loiosh, Blackwand, and, obliquely, Spellbreaker. Spellbreaker is someday to become a Great Weapon, but is not yet; first another Great Weapon 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”. 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 horse, 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. 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. 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…
January 9th, 2017 — Weekly Charity Match
The first few days of the 115th Congress include an attempt to dismantle the House’s ethics office, Republicans trying to rush through confirmation on Trump’s Cabinet nominees before their ethics investigations and background checks are completed, and the long-expected effort to revoke the health insurance of millions of Americans. It’s hard to keep on top of it all, especially since most corporate media has no interest in criticizing the Trump regime in any depth, so this week’s non-profit is deeply necessary.
More on that after we review our impact from 2016. And read on to the end to learn about the new donation incentive: a monthly art giveaway!
Year Five Weeks In Review
Last week’s donation from Rebekah C. plus our match resulted in $50 donated to NARAL. That brings us to a total of $1,475 raised for five charities in November and December last year! Thank you to everyone who has donated so far.
If we can do that in five weeks, what can we do with the fifty-one weeks left this year? I’m going to be ambitious and set a goal of $20,000 raised through the Weekly Charity Match this year. Let’s get started!
This Week: ProPublica
From their website:
ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.
They’ve got a lot of work ahead of them.
When you donate to ProPublica this week, send your donation receipt to email@example.com, and we’ll match the first $100 in donations.
New: Monthly Art Giveaway!
To further incentivize donations, it’s time for me to pull out my art supplies again… In addition to the matching program, every forwarded donation receipt, regardless of the amount, will count as an entry into a monthly art giveaway. I’ll draw a custom portrait for a randomly drawn donor, and mail them the original art. (I’ll post a scan here too, unless the donor asks I do otherwise.)
Call to Action
We’ve seen recently that the combined voices of many can sway Congress’s decisions, simply by letting them know that we’re paying attention. This week, via @derekcnel on Twitter, a request to call your Senator and ask them to allow the ethics review process to continue:
January 4th, 2017 — Weekly Charity Match
While I liked the “Matching Monday” name (because Alliteration is Awesome!), it’s not just a Monday project; donors have contributed on every day of the week, and I usually make my matching donation sometime over the weekend. So, the “Matching Monday” series will be called “Weekly Charity Match” going forward.
And while I’d hoped that the holiday vacation would be somewhat refreshing, even with the travel involved, I hadn’t counted on both of my kids catching various illnesses, and one of them spending nearly the entire 11-day trip sick. So I’m picking this project up again next week. (I am, of course, still accepting donation receipts for NARAL.)
Finally, I’ll be announcing a new donation incentive next Monday as well. Stay tuned!
December 19th, 2016 — Weekly Charity Match
Thus far, I have not received any donation receipts for NARAL, which has me questioning the future of Matching Monday just a bit.
I don’t want to lose momentum on this project. I also don’t want to get frustrated with it. The holidays are an expensive time of year between gifts, travel, and the various minor expenses of winter; they’re also a busy time for much the same reason.
We’ll be back on January 2nd with another charity to support, and during the break I’ll still continue collecting donation receipts for NARAL; even if I have nothing to match I plan to make a donation to them anyway. But I’d much prefer to have my match maxed out again.
I’m also going to be thinking about ways to improve the project; if you have any thoughts, feel free to comment!
Happy holidays, everyone, and I hope what’s left of the year is an improvement on what we’ve seen of it so far.
December 12th, 2016 — Weekly Charity Match
It’s been a rough week for me personally, in addition to the ongoing sociopolitical problems we face. A lot of my motivation in writing this at the moment is simply wanting to live up to the commitment I made of doing one of these posts every week. Five weeks in, and I’m sure many if not most of us are already tiring of the fight. A wise lady on one of my favorite blogs has some advice on how to keep up the resistance without burning ourselves out.
(And for those of you who were following my Dragaera posts and wondering what happened to them – my post on Dragon is nearly complete. Should have it up later this week.)
Last Week: ACLU
Thanks to Maria E., David B., and Eric A., we donated a total of $355 to the ACLU. Thank you, everyone!
This Week: NARAL
With new anti-choice legislation being pushed in Indiana, Ohio, and Texas, it is clear that opponents of women’s reproductive freedom have been emboldened by Trump’s victory just like other factions of his supporters. NARAL Pro-Choice America is on the front lines of the fight to allow women to have control over their bodies. Like the ACLU last week, NARAL participates in lobbying efforts as well as public outreach, so while donations to NARAL itself are not tax-deductible, donations to the NARAL Foundation are. In spite of that, this week I intend to make my matching donation to NARAL itself since so much of the battle over abortion rights is still being fought in state legislatures across the company; I’ll still include donations to either entity in the amount I match (up to $100 as usual).
NARAL will accept donations in honor of others, so this week I’m recommending we “honor” Rep. Tom Price, consistent anti-choice legislator and Trump’s pick to head the Department of Health and Human Services. You can have a notification of your contribution sent to him at:
Congressman Tom Price
85-C Mill Street, Suite 300
Roswell, GA 30075
And, as always, forward your email donation receipts to firstname.lastname@example.org to have them counted!
Call to Action
Last week, Shaun King announced the Injustice Boycott, aimed at pressuring the cities of New York and San Francisco to address their racial injustice issues, and at defunding the Dakota Access Pipeline and divesting from companies that support it. Read the announcement and join the boycott; while the boycotts in NY and SF are planned to start on January 17th, they are working on defunding DAPL immediately, and it’s easy to help out.
December 5th, 2016 — Weekly Charity Match
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 — Weekly Charity Match
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.)
November 21st, 2016 — Weekly Charity Match
The last week has given us plenty to fight against. It’s also given us plenty of opportunities to complain that other people aren’t focusing on fighting the right things. As a wise lady said recently, “pick your front, and link arms with those fighting on others… there’s plenty of fascism to go around.” So bear in mind that this week, as every week, I’m not claiming that this is the most important front to be fighting on – just an important one, and one that I choose to focus on at the moment. With that in mind, let’s see how we did last week before we move on to this week’s charity…
Last Week: RAINN
Thanks to donors Tina H., Eric A., and Maria E., we donated a total of $330 to RAINN in Donald Trump’s honor. This includes direct reported donations, employer matching donations, and my own matching donation, which we had already maxed out by the end of the first day. Thank you, everyone!
This Week: SPLC
Over the past week, Trump has announced his intended nominees for several senior-staff and Cabinet-level positions, and so far it’s a predicable rogue’s gallery of bigots and misogynists. We’ll be discussing several of them in the weeks to come, but let’s start with Trump’s chief strategist and campaign CEO, Steve Bannon. Bannon is an avowed white supremacist and anti-Semite; after he took over Breitbart News, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that it had “undergone a noticeable shift toward embracing ideas on the extremist fringe of the conservative right”, using “racist,” “anti-Muslim” and “anti-immigrant ideas.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has been on the front lines of the fight against white supremacy for nearly fifty years. They keep track of hate groups in the United States, litigate against them on behalf of their victims (including not only African-Americans but also women, immigrants, and the LGBT+ community), and provide resources for teaching tolerance.
Donate to the SPLC here – some other SPLC donors have set up their own matching program as well, so donations go far at the moment! If you want to donate in honor of Steve Bannon, the best mailing address we’ve found for him is via Breitbart:
C/O Breitbart News Network, LLC
149 South Barrington Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90049
Then forward your email receipt to email@example.com by Friday evening; once again, I’ll match the first $100 in donations. If you would prefer I not list your name (as first name plus last initial, as I did above) in next week’s post, let me know, and please tell me if your employer is matching the donation as well.
Call to Action
Finally, here’s another thing you can do, whether or not donations are an option. This Google spreadsheet details various things you can do to pressure your elected officials; it looks like it will be updated weekly with new things we can do. Their current focus is on pushing the House Oversight Committee to investigate Trump’s conflicts of interest, and on overwhelming Speaker Ryan’s phone poll to express support for the Affordable Care Act, but the spreadsheet also provides a call script for continuing to express opposition to Trump’s selection of Bannon as an advisor.
November 14th, 2016 — Weekly Charity Match
There are so many people in increased danger as a result of Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency. There are also so many people pulling together to help each other. It is easy for those of us not directly in danger to adjust to the situation – for the culture of hate and fear underpinning Trump’s political career to become the new normal, and for that complacency to lead us to stop fighting so hard. I don’t want that to happen.
So, I’m starting a new regular feature on Pyrlogos. Every Monday, I’ll name one of Trump’s allies – his campaign surrogates, endorsers, members of his eventual Cabinet, and other public figures who support him. And I’ll highlight a charity that is helping fight against some form of the hate and oppression that that person propagates. I’ll match donations to that charity for the week (up to a limit), and I’ll provide a mailing address for said person so we can make our donations to the charity in their honor.
For our first Matching Monday, we’ll start with Trump’s greatest ally, his strongest promoter, the person who will above all else make sure that Trump is taken care of. That’s right, we’re starting with Donald J. Trump himself.
Choosing one particular charity to oppose his influence was difficult, but while there are many forms of bigotry he was happy to incite for political gain during the campaign, his own worst impulses seem to center on sexual predation. So our first highlighted charity is the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. RAINN is the nation’s largest anti-sexual-violence organization; they operate the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800-656-HOPE), and they run a wide variety of programs to advocate for survivors of sexual violence both individually and at a policy level. Read more about RAINN here.
Donate to RAINN
Donate to RAINN here. If you would like to make your donation in Donald Trump’s honor, you can provide the following address:
C/O The Trump Organization
725 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10022
I’ll match the first $100 in donations. To have your donation matched, forward your emailed donation receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday evening; over the weekend I’ll make my matching donation, and then I’ll announce our total donated amount in next Monday’s post along with our next charity.
I’m planning on doing this throughout the entirety of Trump’s presidency, over 200 Mondays. While I’ll probably repeat charities (and Trump allies) at some point, I’m hoping to avoid doing that for a while – so I need your help! If you have suggestions for future Matching Mondays, comment below or email your suggestions to email@example.com.
October 23rd, 2016 — Books
“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…