Entries from May 2016 ↓

Thinking about Dragaera: Taltos

But there was still somewhere the sense of triumph for having done something no witch had ever done before, and a certain serene pleasure in having succeeded.  I decided I\’d feel pretty good if it didn\’t kill me.

Dying, I\’ve found, always puts a crimp in my enjoyment of an event.

Taltos was the fourth Vlad Taltos book published, in 1988.  It is the earliest book in Vlad\’s chronology (with the brief exception of the prologue to Jhereg, which takes place after Taltos\’ flashback scenes but before the main plot).

Taltos is one of the only two books in the Vlad series not named after a Dragaeran House.  (The other, The Final Contract, is planned to be the last book in the series.)  So this post might be a little different from the preceding ones – but we\’ll see if I can stick to the format.  Let\’s give it a try!

(Also, a brief programming note: my wife is pregnant and due in a week.  Posts may continue to be intermittent for a while.)

About táltos

In the mythology of Hungary (the country of Brust\’s descent), a táltos is someone given supernatural powers at birth.  How exactly this happens isn\’t clear; some sources say that it is due to prenatal contact with God, but others connect the táltos with pagan religion (which raises the question of which god is involved).  The powers of a táltos generally include the power to cure as well as a meditative trance ability that somewhat resembles Vlad\’s witchcraft meditation.  A táltos usually has extra bones (e.g. extra fingers) – this may or may not be connected to the extra joints Vlad notices in the goddess Verra\’s fingers, as worship of Verra seems to be at least loosely connected with Eastern witchcraft.  There are other aspects of the táltos, many of which vary by who\’s telling the legends((Most of those additional aspects have not yet, as far as I know, made a significant appearance in the Vlad\’s story.  On the other hand, the táltos is almost always connected to a magical horse, one of which appears in Brokedown Palace (which takes place in Vlad\’s ancestral homeland of Fenario).  Additionally, St. Stephen of Hungary was, in some legends, believed to be a táltos; I don\’t know whether our author was specifically named after the saint, but the connection is interesting nevertheless.)).

About Taltos

The only members of the Taltos family about whom I have any details are Vlad, his father, and his grandfather.  Neither Vlad\’s father nor his grandfather have been given a first name so far in the books (though Vlad calls his grandfather \”Noish-pa\”).  Vlad\’s father and grandfather moved to Adrilankha before Vlad was born.  (Vlad\’s mother died when Vlad was young; that\’s about all we know of her at the moment.)

His father worked for decades as a restaurateur; Easterners apparently brought the concept of restaurants (as separate from an inn that provides food along with the lodgings) to Dragaera, and they still run most of the best restaurants in Adrilankha.  He then spent his life\’s savings to buy a baronetcy in the House of the Jhereg and unsuccessfully attempted to assimilate into Dragaeran culture before dying shortly thereafter.  Even years later, Vlad sees this as a vast waste of money, despite how lucrative his own career in the Jhereg has become, and he holds a lot of resentment for his father\’s desire to become Dragaeran.

Vlad\’s grandfather taught Vlad fencing and Eastern witchcraft (despite his father\’s protestations that Vlad should instead learn Dragaeran sorcery).  He was also involved somehow in the Easterner revolt sometime around when Vlad was born, which is an occasional topic of discussion in Teckla.  Noish-pa often acts as Vlad\’s moral compass; Vlad goes to him whenever he\’s having trouble figuring out how to move forward with the bigger questions of life, and Noish-pa gently but reliably points Vlad in the right direction.

Summarizing Vlad Taltos himself is difficult, for reasons I\’ll discuss in more detail shortly…

About Taltos

Taltos tells a couple of stories, interspersed.  The main plot starts with Vlad as a new Jhereg boss, low on the totem pole but controlling his own area, learning that one of his \”button-men\” (basically, \”henchman\”) stole the money that he was supposed to be collecting for Vlad and ran away with it.  The flashback plot is Vlad\’s youth and initial entry into the Jhereg Organization as an enforcer, giving more detail on the background story we already knew((Specifically, Vlad being bullied by Dragaerans, learning fencing from his grandfather, starting fights with young Orcas, and learning to hate the people among whom he and his family were living.  There\’s nothing significantly new here, but a lot of additional information that fleshes out the bits and pieces we had before.  Also, meeting his first boss Nielar and first partner Kragar, as well as Kiera…)).  There is also a third narrative, split among the seventeen chapter headings, of Vlad casting some kind of extremely difficult witchcraft; we find out what exactly it is towards the end of the story.

In the main plot, Vlad soon learns his button-man, Quion, has fled to Dzur Mountain, home of the extremely powerful (and also undead) sorceress, Sethra Lavode.  (The name is of course familiar to us readers, but this is the first time Vlad has had anything to do with her.)  Quion apparently had also met Morrolan (another name more familiar to the reader than to Vlad at this point) before the theft, so Vlad goes to ask Morrolan about it, and Morrolan teleports himself and Vlad straight to Dzur Mountain – where they find Sethra Lavode and Quion\’s corpse.  It turns out that the whole thing was a set up to get Vlad to visit Dzur Mountain in order for Sethra and Morrolan to make Vlad a lucrative and dangerous proposition: breaking into an Athyra wizard\’s keep to recover a staff containing the soul of Aliera e\’Kieron.  (In case it wasn\’t obvious by now, Taltos is the book in which Vlad meets nearly all of his powerful allies.)

The supposition is that the Athrya wizard, Loraan, had set up his keep\’s defenses to alert him to the presence of any unexpected Dragaeran visitors, but had not accounted for the presence of Easterners, hence Sethra and Morrolan hiring Vlad for the job.  Vlad\’s objections to the job are beaten down by Sethra\’s offer of seven thousand Imperials, and he takes the case.  He breaks into Loraan\’s keep by hiding in a wine barrel, but runs into Loraan in his lab; Morrolan comes to the rescue.  They escape with not only the staff but also the golden chain that Vlad found, which the reader already knows to be Spellbreaker; Morrolan appears to have killed Loraan in the process, though their hasty teleport back to Dzur Mountain makes that difficult to confirm.

At this point, we spend a bit more time than usual in flashbacks, as Vlad describes how he first met Kiera the Thief, the only one of his usual allies that he\’d met before he started working for the Organization.  She helps him out in a couple different ways, and asks her to hold on to a vial she claims contains the blood of a goddess.  For only twenty or thirty years, \”not long,\” she says, forgetting (or pretending to forget, more likely) how much of an Easterner lifespan that is.

Back in the main action, Vlad is summoned back to Dzur Mountain, where Sethra and Morrolan ask him to enter the Paths of the Dead – essentially, an exclusive section of the Dragaeran afterlife – to reunite Aliera\’s soul with her body and bring her back to the world of the living.  They are asking him because they believe that, as an Easterner, Vlad should be able to leave the Paths when a Dragaeran is not able to.  Vlad agrees on the condition that Morrolan accompany him, and Morrolan agrees in turn despite having no reason to believe he\’ll be able to leave.  They travel to Deathgate Falls, the entry point to the Paths of the Dead, and follow Sethra\’s instructions to reach the Lords of Judgement (which is to say, the gods, as Easterners see them).  Verra, Vlad\’s occasional matron goddess, is among them, and is surprised to hear that Vlad and Morrolan are there to retrieve Aliera.  She somehow summons and revives Aliera, who in typical Dragon fashion refuses to leave Morrolan behind.

Verra explains that it is the blood that determines the fate of someone in the Paths of the Dead – hence Vlad and his Easterner blood can leave (once), but Morrolan and his Dragaeran blood must stay, and Aliera is only granted an exemption as the heir to the Imperial throne.  (Verra\’s own blood is clearly different, as she is a goddess.)  After visiting the Cycle – apparently a physical phenomenon within the Paths of the Dead, in addition to a somewhat metaphorical construct by which the succession of the Imperial throne is guided – Vlad figures out a way out.  He uses an immense and improvised witchcraft ritual – the one that he has been casting across the chapter beginnings for the entire book – as witchcraft works within the Paths while sorcery does not.  The ritual summons the vial of goddess\’ blood to himself from his home; he then injects the blood into Morrolan, overcoming the blood-borne restrictions on leaving the Paths, and enables the entire party to successfully leave.

The Taltos Synthesis

Vlad is a character of contradictions, and in many cases it\’s hard to say that one side of the contradiction is Vlad\’s \”thesis\” while another is his \”antithesis\”.  But in some cases, there are specific parts that he consciously identifies with.  Vlad sees himself as an Easterner – but, as we learned in Jhereg, he has the soul of a Dragaeran, and Teckla demonstrated that he doesn\’t identify strongly with the other Easterners in Adrilankha.  His hatred of Dragaerans as a general class is one of his major motivations – but he has surrounded himself with Dragaeran allies from a very young age, and frequently risks his life for them.  Vlad is already the synthesis of the various opposing ideas that he embodies.

The climax of the story is Vlad\’s successful use of witchcraft, an art strongly tied to his Easterner identity, while stuck in the Dragaeran afterlife, in order to save the life of a Dragaeran whom he had originally hated when they met.  It\’s a microcosm of the contradictions that make up Vlad\’s character; while the climax doesn\’t exactly resolve any of Vlad\’s internal tensions, it demonstrates that in the end his notions of self-identity are less important to him than doing his best to help and protect the people he feels responsible for((In the vocabulary of \”love languages\”, Vlad\’s most reliable way of telling you he cares about you has always been his willingness to put himself at great and often inadvisable risk for you.)).  So be it; he contains multitudes.

Other interesting notes

  • Even before Vlad had met any of his powerful allies, he knew Kiera the Thief, having originally met her when he was eleven.  The things we learn about her later (and that we\’ve already learned about Vlad) suggest that she had a good idea of what lay ahead of him already, but the foresight she shows in this particular case is impressive.
  • Sethra suggests in her knowing way that Vlad name the golden chain, but provides no further reasons; she is obviously already aware of the item\’s potential (which it doesn\’t show fully for at least a few more books, if I recall correctly).
  • Between this book and Phoenix, we get the distinct impression that the gods in general, and Verra in particular, are far more fallible than most people consider gods to be.  This is not reassuring.
  • Vlad meets multiple interesting characters in the Halls of Judgement, including Baritt (whose death was a minor plot point in Yendi), Kieron (founder of the Dragaeran Empire and his past-life brother), and Devera (Aliera\’s as-yet-unborn daughter, who also briefly appeared in Yendi when Vlad spent a few minutes dead).

Next time

When Verra closes a door, she opens a window, which happens to be a portal into another dimension, or something.  Phoenix has Vlad standing upon the threshold of his life…

Thinking About Dragaera: Teckla

\”I don\’t need advice on my marriage from a Verra-be-damned… no, I suppose I do, don\’t I? All right. What would you do?\”

\”Ummm… I\’d tell her if I had two teckla I\’d give her one.\”

Teckla is the third Vlad Taltos((Edited to add: I originally described it as the third Dragaera novel, but technically speaking, that\’s Brokedown Palace.  Like I mentioned in the introduction, I may or may not be discussing that one at some point.)) novel, published in 1987.  Chronologically, it takes place right after Jhereg.

I had hoped to get this posted in time for May Day (aka International Worker\’s Day), but so it goes.

About teckla

Teckla are small, mousy rodents.  Dead teckla are one of Loiosh\’s favorite snacks (and this appears to go for other jheregs as well).

About Teckla

Frightened teckla hides in grass…

The House of the Teckla comprises the vast majority of Dragaerans.  Teckla is the house of the peasantry and the working class; out of seventeen Houses they are the only ones not to be considered \”noble\”.  Anyone – Dragaeran or Easterner – may join the House of the Teckla by swearing fealty to a Dragaeran noble (i.e. any member of the other sixteen Houses); most Teckla work as tenant farmers, enlisted/conscripted soldiers, or other jobs where the main need is simply lots of bodies.  Teckla are widely considered to be cowardly and subservient; their only advantage seems to be population, which the Teckla maintain with a relatively high rate of fertility.

About Teckla

Vlad is flush with the money from his assassination of Mellar and is contemplating what to do with it (a castle for Cawti, perhaps?); he\’s realized he may not need to work (or \”work\”) anymore.  He discovers that his wife is working with a group of dissidents in South Adrilankha (where most of the city\’s Easterners live), when one of her compatriots, Gregory, arrives at his home to tell Cawti that another of their group, Franz has been killed.  It turns out that Franz was killed by the Jhereg (specifically on the orders of Herth, the Jhereg boss who runs South Adrilankha), because of the group\’s interference in Jhereg criminal activities.

Vlad gets drawn into the conflict through Cawti\’s involvement, in a few ways.  He is concerned about her safety, because he assumes that sooner or later either the Empire will show up to put them all down or the Jhereg will continue killing them individually.  As he is certain that the group has no chance to change anything, he believes that Cawti is risking her life to no end.  This concern is cemented when he is tortured by Herth\’s people himself because of his connection to the group, and after his people rescue him from the torture he becomes aware of an assassin who intends to kill him.

Vlad spends much of the novel either tailing his wife to try to protect her, or arguing with her comrades about their grievances and goals.  He sees Kelly\’s group as hopeless idealists who are endangering Cawti\’s life with their naivete; they see him as an amoral, money-driven killer.  The fact that the dissidents win a small victory during a protest over some murdered Easterners – convincing the Empress to agree to investigate the murders and withdraw the Phoenix Guards sent to break up the protest – only convinces Vlad further that the movement is doomed.  Cawti is furious with Vlad\’s interference, and he tries repeatedly to convince her that she should abandon the cause.

As tensions in South Adrilankha continue to increase, and as his relationship with Cawti continues to degrade, Vlad\’s behavior becomes more erratic.  At one point he arrives at Kelly\’s headquarters intending to murder Kelly and his staff in order to decapitate the nascent revolution and end Cawti\’s involvement, but he is stopped by the ghost of Franz, who seems content with the upheaval his death has caused (and the fact that his comrades were able to use it to rally others).

After Vlad incites tensions further by breaking up some of Herth\’s criminal activities while blaming it on Kelly, he forges an invitation from Kelly to Herth to draw both Herth and his hired assassin out.  The assassin is killed by one of Vlad\’s men as Vlad confronts Herth in Kelly\’s office, but Kelly convinces Vlad not to kill him.  In the process, Vlad has to face the fact that the discussions he\’s had over the past few days have exposed a side of him he hasn\’t wanted to acknowledge – he is the amoral killer Kelly accused him of being.

Vlad walks away from the conflict not sure how either his troubles with Cawti or his war with Herth is going to end, but then he realizes he can use the money from his assassination of Mellar to buy Herth out, taking control of South Adrilankha himself.  Cawti comes back and agrees to try to work their problems out; it\’s clear they\’re not out of the woods yet, but they at least reach something of an understanding.

The Teckla Thesis

Let me preface this with a bit of a story.  When I first read Teckla, in 2005 or so, I was convinced that Vlad was the protagonist of this story.  It\’s his series, right?  He\’s the one making the heroic decisions.  Clearly the people set in opposition to him – both the Jhereg trying to kill the revolutionists, and the revolutionists futilely trying to overthrow the Empire – are in the wrong.

Since then, I\’ve matured as a reader, and I\’ve also learned more about the author\’s politics.  Teckla addresses Steven Brust\’s politics more directly than any of his other novels (or at least, those others that I\’ve read so far).  Per his website, Brust self-identifies as a \”Trotskyist sympathizer\”. A full discussion of Trotskyism is beyond the scope of this post, but I think that understanding that Trotskyists believe in international socialist revolution and the dissolution of the state is sufficient for the purposes of discussing Teckla((Brust\’s site refers the reader to the World Socialist Web Site for more information.  The WSWS is a publication of the International Committee of the Fourth International, an organization founded by Leon Trotsky and his supporters to combat both capitalism and Stalinism.  One interesting point about Trotskyism, though, is that neither the Teckla nor the Easterners appear to be a sufficiently developed proletariat for the purposes of Trotskyist theories about how revolutions work; Trotsky believed that the peasantry alone were incapable of socialist revolution.)).  But even discarding authorial intent (which I try not to put much stock in anyway), I feel like I understand the statements of the text itself much more clearly now – and Vlad doesn\’t come out looking very good this time around.

Teckla are known((Which is to say, believed by nearly everyone in Dragaera with any political authority whatsoever.)) to be cowardly and subservient.  To be Teckla is to spend your life serving the interests of other, more powerful people – and to accept your lot without complaint.  We meet a few different Teckla mixed in among the Easterner revolutionists, but the most Teckla-ish character in the novel is Vlad.  Most of his behavior in Teckla is driven by fear – fearing for his own life, fearing for Cawti\’s, and fearing what he\’ll see if he examines himself too closely.  His arguments with the revolutionists (including his fights with Cawti) mostly consist of Vlad defending, or declaring the impossibility of changing, the status quo, which includes his own subservience to the Jhereg Organization as well as the Easterners\’ and Teckla\’s subservience to every other Dragaeran in the Empire.

The Teckla Antithesis

The antithesis of the Teckla behavior is to fight for what you believe in.  If society puts you in a disadvantaged position, don\’t just passively accept it – push back and try to make things better.  Even if the chances of success are low; even if it could cost you your life.  This is what Kelly, Cawti, Franz, and the rest of the dissidents are doing, and this is what Vlad cannot accept.

Another Teckla antithesis is holding and wielding power and authority.  Paresh, a Teckla and one of Kelly\’s group, tells a story about a fire that ravaged his master\’s territory.  Paresh went to the castle and found everyone dead, and began ruling the castle himself, as well as teaching himself sorcery from the library full of tomes his former master had kept.  A year later, another noble came calling and chased Paresh out of the castle – but not before being surprised by Paresh\’s skill with sorcery.  He lost the castle then, and the authority over it that he had briefly claimed, but the power he gained from his study of sorcery remained.  Though Paresh remains a Teckla, his desire for the ability of self-determination – as much its own sort of power as sorcery – sets him apart from the stereotypical Teckla.

(For Jhereg and Yendi, I used the House of the Dragon as the antithesis example, and it would be applicable here too – if anything, Dragons and Teckla are even more opposed than Dragons and Yendi are.  But the Dragons don\’t have much if any presence in this story, and Kelly\’s organization exemplifies the antithesis sufficiently themselves.)


The climax of Teckla is the confrontation triggered by Vlad drawing Herth to Kelly\’s office under false pretenses.  Vlad has been acting out of fear for the entire book, and he believes that killing Herth is the only way to resolve the conflict in which he has involved himself.  Vlad\’s typical response to fear is to lash out, often unwisely, but he has enough skill to prevent that tendency from putting him in more danger than he can handle.  So, shortly after Herth enters Kelly\’s office, Vlad is there and Herth\’s bodyguards are dead, incapacitated, or otherwise out of the fight.  Despite his cowardice, Vlad is still willing to fight for something, and stabbing people that have offended him (or are in the service of those who have offended him, or have simply appeared to be a threat) is easier than self-reflection at this point.  After all, he\’s much more practiced in the former than the latter.

Kelly intervenes, saying that Herth is \”our enemy\”, not Vlad\’s.  Whether he means the revolutionary organization or the Easterners of Adrilankha in general, he means to exclude Vlad; at this point, Kelly sees Vlad as no better than any other noble Dragaeran.  But despite the confrontation that he\’s been leading so far, Kelly believes that there must be a way for Vlad to ensure Herth doesn\’t come after him without murder.

On the axis between Teckla cowardice and the anti-Teckla courage of one\’s convictions, Vlad splits the difference here.  He is brave enough to acknowledge that he is imperfect and selfish, but still lacks the courage to examine himself in detail.  He hides from himself even as he curses Kelly for forcing him to face himself: \”I respect you, and I respect what you\’re doing, but you\’ve diminished me in my own eyes, and in Cawti\’s.  I can\’t forgive you for that.\”  He says he\’d love to torture Herth, but then he simply threatens him with non-specific retribution if he tries anything, and walks away – which itself takes a certain sort of bravery.

Vlad\’s buyout of Herth is almost an anti-climax, a somewhat convenient way of defusing the remaining danger.  Along with everything else, it shows that there is a middle path between being too scared to try to make anything better and feeling like you can just fight your way out of the situation you\’re in.  Sometimes you have to compromise and seek a solution that everyone can walk away from.

Other interesting notes

  • The novel is prefaced by a brief note of instruction from Vlad to a laundry and tailor shop about how to clean and repair various garments.  The instructions are then split into seventeen parts to subtitle each chapter; each subtitle addresses some bit of damage or dirtiness that his clothes suffer during the events of that chapter.  I presume that the launderers and tailors are themselves Teckla (though I don\’t think it\’s ever specified); the subtitles serve as a constant reminder that Vlad considers himself above the menial work with which most Teckla make their living.  (Similarly, the preoccupation with ensuring every single cut or stain is repaired or cleaned is something that your typical Teckla likely has no time or money for.)
  • The events of Teckla lead more-or-less directly into the events of Phoenix, which I\’ll be discussing in a couple weeks.  This is one of the cases where the chronology of the series (and/or the order of publication) is important; while reading Phoenix before Teckla isn\’t completely impossible, there is a lot of context that would be difficult to pick up on the fly.
  • Edited to add: On Twitter, @BarrenHillBaker points out a connection I had missed: the noble that comes calling on Paresh in the castle identifies himself as the Duke of Arylle.  This is a title that holds some significance to the events of The Phoenix Guards, and Paresh\’s description matches Aerich (one of the four titular guards of the book, and eventual holder of that duchy).  This also reminded me of another connection that I had noticed myself but forgot to mention – the leader of the Phoenix Guards during Teckla is Khaavren himself, main protagonist of the Khaavren Romances (of which The Phoenix Guards is the first book).  Taltos talks to him briefly while trying to defuse one of the conflicts between the Guards and the Easterner and Teckla protesters.

Next time

The fourth book in the series (by order of publication) is Taltos.  Thus far we\’ve discussed the thesis and antithesis for three specific Houses, but to continue that pattern, we\’ll need to address the question: What does it mean to be Taltos?