Entries from July 2016 ↓

Thinking About Dragaera: Phoenix

\”But it all happened so fast.\”

\”That is how these things work, Vladimir.  You see all your peasants smile and look sleepy and they say, \’Oh, this is our lot in life,\’ and then something happens and they all say, \’We will die to keep them from doing this to our children.\’  All in a night it can happen, Vladimir.\”

\”I guess so.  But I\’m frightened, Noish-pa…\”

Phoenix is the fifth Vlad Taltos book, published in 1990.  It is essentially a direct sequel to Teckla, not only following directly afterwards in the chronology but also continuing to address some of the plot points and themes that were raised but not resolved in that book.

(I have written the vast majority of this post while caring for my newborn son (who arrived on May 28th); I apologize in advance for both the delay in posting this and any lack of coherency in the argument.  Also, please forgive the extremely long synopsis, as I did not have the time or brain to write a shorter one.  In any case, hopefully it won\’t take quite as long to write the next one…)

About phoenixes

Phoenixes in Dragaera are similar to those from classical mythology – rare birds that die in fire and are reborn from their own ashes.

About Phoenixes

Phoenix sinks into decay…

Phoenix rise from ashes gray.

The core attributes of the House of the Phoenix has far less to do with the individual members than it does with the House\’s place in the Dragaeran Cycle.  As the phoenix represents death and rebirth, the Phoenix period in the Cycle is supposed to be one of decadence (in the sense of a declining civilization) and renewal.  The House of the Phoenix is accordingly understood to be situated at both the beginning and the end of the sequence of Houses, tying that sequence together into a repeating cycle.  Furthermore, the Phoenixes have a particular place in Dragaeran history, as the Interregnum that ended a couple hundred years was bracketed by a decadent Phoenix emperor and a reborn Phoenix empress.  The emperor, Tortaalik, was decadent to the point of causing the collapse of the Empire; the current Phoenix empress, Zerika, is considered a \”reborn\” Phoenix after having retrieved the Orb of Judgment((The Orb of Judgment is the primary symbol of office of the Empress, as well as the source of power for Dragaeran sorcery.  Every citizen of the Empire (including non-Dragaerans who belong to a House, like Vlad and his father) has a link to the Orb that can be used to perform sorcery if one has the skill, and to tell time as well.  The Empress herself (around whose head the Orb tends to orbit) can also use the Orb to insure the truth of testimony given in Imperial court, and unless she specifically causes it not to, it records her thoughts and actions for posterity (as well as giving her access to the same from her predecessors).  Additionally, the Orb\’s color tends to reflect the Empress\’ mood, and can apparently act directly to protect the Empress from harm.)) from the Paths of the Dead and returned living to the mortal world.

Zerika is Empress not only by virtue of having retrieved the Orb, but also simply as a result of being the only Phoenix currently alive.  It is unclear how the House will continue – a dicey proposition in any case, as one can only be confirmed as a member of the House if a phoenix passed overhead at the time of one\’s birth – but there is speculation that divine intervention will be involved.  In any case, since the end of the Interregnum (about 240 years before the events of Phoenix), Zerika has held the Orb and by most accounts has ruled wisely and well in accordance with her \”reborn\” nature.

About Phoenix

The plot starts with Vlad cornered by unknown assailants; he prays to his goddess Verra for aid, and to his surprise she answers by bodily transporting him to her throne room in the Paths of the Dead (which was the point of Verra arranging the attack).  She hires him to murder the King of Greenaere, an island nation off the coast of Dragaera where, for some reason, Dragaeran sorcery and psionics do not work.  He demands ten thousand gold imperials for the job, which she agrees to.

The book\’s headings are titled as lessons about being an assassin, a conceit which Vlad introduces in a brief prologue and occasionally returns to in the narration.  Notably, he points out as he tries to plan the murder that he prefers to have much more information about and control over the job he\’s doing, and his concern is justified – while he successfully carries out the assassination, he does not get away cleanly, and he has to begin running.  After meeting a Greenaeran drummer (who helps him tend the wounds he suffered while escaping from the guards), both he and the drummer, Aibynn, are arrested for the king\’s murder.

Greenaere\’s notion of interrogation is civilized, and Vlad is not tortured((Much to his relief, as he is aware that he did not hold up well under torture during the events of Teckla.)); he refuses to either admit to the assassination or reveal why he did it.  He does get some time in prison for self-reflection, though, continuing to challenge his current choice of work in light of Noish-pa\’s explicit statement of disapproval on the topic during Teckla.  He is eventually rescued by Aliera, Cawti, and Morrolan, and both he and Aibynn are brought back to Adrilankha.

From here, the consequences of the assassination unfold, and becomes entangled with Kelly\’s revolutionary group; Cawti\’s involvement in that group is still a sore point between her and Vlad.  Greenaere and its ally Elde Island declare war on Dragaera, and Morrolan, Aliera, and Sethra prepare; they\’re aware (or at least highly suspicious) that Vlad had something to do with the outbreak of hostilities.  The Empire\’s preparations include forced conscription in South Adrilankha, which further angers the revolutionaries; the leaders (including Cawti) are soon thereafter arrested for the destruction of a watchtower.  Cawti is offered conditional release when Norathar, the Dragon heir and her former partner, attempts to intercede, but she refuses to leave without her compatriots.

Vlad, on hearing this at Castle Black, makes use of the Tower of Windows to reenter the Halls of Judgment and demand answers from Verra.  She explains that the intent of the assassination of the King of Greenaere was in fact to start a war and cause conscription in South Adrilankha, which she had hoped would derail Kelly\’s nascent revolution.  Verra explains that Kelly has discovered a long-hidden truth about how society works, but that that truth cannot flourish in the Empire as it is, and his attempt to force it to do so will only lead to the massacre of his organization((Verra describes these ideas as predating even the Jenoine and preserved in Lyorn vaults, which were unearthed during the Interregnum and eventually found their way into Kelly\’s hands.  Putting this together with what we know of Kelly\’s philosophy from Teckla (and what we know of Brust\’s own politics), it sounds like Kelly basically discovered this world\’s equivalent of Trotskyist theory.  (Or perhaps it was Trotskyism, and the civilization that came before the Jenoine is actually our own.  I don\’t remember whether Dragaera is explicitly supposed to be the future of our own world or not.)  In any case, as I mentioned briefly in discussing Teckla, Trotskyism postulates certain preconditions for the permanent revolution that is its ideal state, including the existence of a proletariat gathered into large groups (e.g. in factories containing thousands of workers).  Trotsky believed that the peasantry (i.e. the rural poor, largely consisting of farmers) were incapable of organizing as needed for a successful socialist revolution, in part due to being spread across the land; the peasantry as described in general Communist theory is nearly identical to the role played by the Teckla in Dragaeran society.  Verra understands that Dragaera has not yet reached the point where socialism can successfully take hold – but underestimates Kelly\’s belief that the time for the revolution is now.)).  She had not been expecting them to fight conscription; her surprise and dismay at how things went is terrifying to Vlad, who is not used to the idea of gods making mistakes.

Vlad returns to his usual pattern of acting stubbornly and rashly in defense of his wife and starts confronting and threatening high-ranked Jhereg, earning himself multiple assassination attempts in the process.  A Jhereg council member named Boralinoi tells Vlad that he framed Kelly\’s group (and Cawti in particular) for the watchtower\’s destruction, because the group was cutting into Jhereg profits as well as causing problems with the Empire.  Vlad responds by declaring his intention to kill Boralinoi, but isn\’t able to do so immediately and has to fight his way out of the council member\’s office.

Soon thereafter, Vlad is summoned to speak with the Empress, who claims she simply wanted to know him better after he was brought to her attention both by threatening the Jhereg\’s representative in the Palace and by his marriage to the former partner of the Dragon Heir.  They walk around the palace while they talk, apparently a usual habit for the Empress.  Vlad asks about his wife\’s release, and Zerika tells him that she refused the conditions of her release, which included a promise not to act against the interests of the Empire (a different explanation than was given Norathar, though Vlad does not comment on it).

Zerika also describes what she sees as the role of the Empress – not to rule Dragaera absolutely but to make sure the lifeblood of the Empire (food and goods, mainly) flows uninterrupted, and to use the Orb to safeguard the Empire from disaster.  She explains her desire to keep the Jhereg happy by revealing that the Jhereg play a role in the proper functioning of the Empire (rather than simply profiting by providing access to things the Empire has deemed illegal): the Jhereg provide the urban Teckla with distractions from their menial existence and prevent Teckla unhappiness (which would ultimately disrupt the efficiency of the city and the \”delicate balance\” of Dragaeran society)((This subtly ties back into Kelly\’s (and Brust\’s) politics as well; the Empire is using the Jhereg to keep the working class suppressed and either unwilling or unable to threaten the stratified class structure that is Dragaeran society.)).  But she is sympathetic to Vlad\’s plea that he needs Cawti freed more than the Jhereg need her imprisoned, and she orders her unconditional release.  Cawti is, of course, as committed as ever to Kelly\’s cause and declares her intention to work for their release as well, and her relationship with Vlad is no less fractured than it was before she was imprisoned.

With both career and marriage in jeopardy, Vlad retreats to the last and first constant of his life – his grandfather.  In Noish-pa\’s usual fashion, he provides wisdom and context with a minimum of judgment, as Vlad tries to make sense of the impending revolt and the turmoil of his life.  Noish-pa uses witchcraft to reveal that another assassin waits for Vlad outside the shop; Vlad leaves, draws him away from the shop, and kills him first.  He is wandering South Adrilankha when the revolution starts in earnest, though he doesn\’t remember much in detail (and his narration skips ahead accordingly).  Vlad returns to his grandfather\’s shop to find three dead Phoenix Guards and Noish-pa cleaning his rapier; he convinces him to accept sanctuary at Castle Black, which Morrolan is happy to grant((Vlad and his grandfather are greeted at Castle Black by Lady Teldra, Morrolan\’s Issola majordomo (or official hostess or something; the full scope of her duties has not yet been made clear).  I have not yet mentioned Teldra and her perfect, welcoming manners, despite her brief appearances in every book so far; I will certainly be discussing her in more detail when I get to Issola.  For the moment, I just wanted to appreciate how even the distrustful-of-elfs elder Taltos cannot help but like her after she greets him with broad yet understated praise.)).

At Castle Black, Vlad learns that Cawti has been rearrested – this time for treason against the Empire, for which the penalty is execution.  He figures out a plan and secures promises of assistance from his usual allies despite not letting them all in on it.  He gets Morrolan to arrange an immediate audience with the Empress, to whom he proposes both to testify that Boralinoi and the Jhereg Organization were the actual destroyers of the watchtower, and to secure a peace treaty with Greenaere, in exchange for the release of Cawti and her compatriots.  She accepts the deal and he testifies immediately, once and for all ending his career in the Jhereg Organization, and returns to Castle Black.

Sethra Lavode, Daymar, and Aibynn work together to punch a teleport through Greenaere\’s sorcery blocks, and Vlad\’s party (himself, Loiosh and Rocza, Morrolan, and Aliera) reach the castle, storming past guards who challenge them but are unable to actually stop them.  The new King (the son of Vlad\’s victim) demands the assassin as part of the treaty deal; Vlad quietly makes an arrangement with him, outside of his allies\’ hearing.  Morrolan and Aliera teleport back home, but Vlad steps out of the area of effect and surrenders himself.

Vlad recommends they kill him quickly, but the King has questions, saying Vlad was someone\’s tool and he\’d rather have the wielder.  Vlad refuses to reveal or kill his employer (not that he was likely to accomplish the latter anyway), and then they run out of time.  Aliera returns by teleport, along with Aibynn and Boralinoi, and a letter from the Empress claiming he was Vlad\’s employer (which Vlad isn\’t about to gainsay).  The King allows Vlad to act as Boralinoi\’s executioner, but then refuses to let him leave again, and he and Aliera fight their way out of the palace.  Aibynn proposes drumming again, and manages to drum the three of them back into Verra\’s halls.  Vlad is angry with Verra to the point of declaring his intent to never have anything to do with her again, but Verra points out he\’s starting a different life and she won\’t hold him to that yet.  She declares that Vlad has an appointment with Empress and sends them back to the palace((On their arrival, Aliera casually addresses Verra as \”Mother\”; after Aliera leaves but before Vlad does, Devera greets Vlad (having had to stay hidden from Aliera because she hasn\’t yet been born), and tells him that Verra meant well.  Since Vlad\’s soul is brother to Aliera\’s, does that make Verra Vlad\’s mother as well?  It\’s unclear at the moment, but in any case, Verra\’s family dynamics remain strange.)).

Zerika grants Vlad the Imperial title((Imperial titles appear to be a separate matter from House titles; for one thing, they sound like they\’re much harder to revoke or alter at the whim of one\’s House, e.g. as Orca does with its titles to ensure they correspond to naval ranks.)) of Count Szurke, which comes with some land near the Eastern border.  Vlad passes off his organization to Kragar, except for his South Adrilankha interests, which he gives to Cawti as they say goodbye for the foreseeable future.  He also says goodbye to the rest of his allies, and then to his grandfather, who he asks to manage his new lands and manor.  On the run now, Vlad teleports back to the place where he originally received Loiosh\’s egg, and sets off to the west.

The Phoenix Thesis

The standard Phoenix attributes of decay and rebirth apply to the House\’s place in the cycle, but those are two facets of what I think is the deeper meaning of the House.  Phoenix is a liminal House, a symbol of transition between one state of being and another.  The Cycle may be cyclical, but the iterations are not identical, and the House of the Phoenix stands astride the threshold of history, acting as psychopomp for the death of the ages past and the midwife for the birth of the ages yet to come.  Tortaalik in his decadence guided the pre-Interregnum Empire to its death.  Then, Zerika reversed the psychopomp role to bring the Empire itself, embodied in the Orb, back from the dead; the new Empire is not precisely the same as the old one, much as the phoenix arising from its own ashes need not be identical to its former self.

Additionally, the House of the Phoenix is generally considered to be the most noble of the Dragaeran Houses, by some combination of their rarity and their particular position in the Cycle; this is of course more true during the Phoenixes\’ turn holding the Orb, and even more so during the reign of a reborn Phoenix.  Phoenixes are, more often than any other Dragaerans, born to rule in one way or another.

To be Phoenix, then, is to be a leader that both catalyzes and responds to change – when a Phoenix moves through the world, the world changes in their wake.  Zerika exemplifies this not only in her position as Empress but in the way she acts in the process of making decisions – she thinks best on her feet, and she and Vlad are walking during both of their significant conversations.  (The decadent Phoenixes are likely not in motion nearly as much, but in those cases their very inaction catalyzes transition as well – whether the destruction of the Empire or simply the changing of the Cycle.)  Further, in one of those conversations we get more of a view into the mechanisms of Imperial leadership than we\’ve ever had before, as Zerika explains the tradeoffs she makes and the way even the Jhereg are useful to the Empire.

The Phoenix Antithesis

The antithesis of the Phoenix attributes of change is stasis and stagnation.  The anti-Phoenix seeks to avoid change – to keep doing the same things in the same way, forever.  Maybe it\’s due to fear of what could be lost, or simply comfort in the way things are, which are two sides of the same coin.  But when things inevitably do change, the anti-Phoenix turns to regression – trying to turn back the clock and return to the \”good old days\”, whatever that means.   It is of course impossible to do – things said cannot be unsaid, things done are remembered even if undone, and time can no more flow backwards than can the Cycle that governs Dragaeran history.

Vlad spends the majority of the book playing the anti-Phoenix, of course.  He doesn\’t want his life to change, and he\’s terrified by the changes that are already happening.  He not only refuses to accept the changes that have already happened, but he also ignores other changes as they happen, as he clings tightly to the illusion that his former life still exists((His cowardice in facing his changing life is a continuation of his stereotypical-Teckla role from the previous book; Teckla and Phoenix are really two halves of the same story.)).

He accepts Verra\’s assassination contract as if it were any other, even though it isn\’t; he asks her, a goddess, the most powerful being he\’s ever known, for a simple monetary payment because the prospect of her offering something else scares him.  (\”I\’ve heard too many stories about people getting what they wish for.\”)   The unusual employer isn\’t the only thing that makes this contract different, either; he acknowledges once he\’s on Greenaere that he\’s usually a lot better informed about his jobs, and he pays dearly for the lack of preparation.

Following his return from Greenaere, Vlad\’s actions for nearly the entire remainder of Phoenix is motivated by his desire to save Cawti and his relationship with her, the changes in which he refuses to accept until near the end of the book.


The fact that resisting change is futile means that most of Phoenix is spent in synthesis.  Despite his desire to handle this contract like any other, not only is the assassination of the King of Greenaere different in its own right, but it also catalyzes the major changes that occur over the rest of the book.  His unwillingness to accept the changes that are happening cause and accelerate other changes in his life; trying to save Cawti causes him to destroy his career in the Jhereg.

In terms of the action of the book, the climax occurs as Vlad and Aliera escape Greenaere after delivering (and executing) Boralinoi.  However, the climax in Vlad\’s development during the book is even more important; this is a book about how people change, after all.  At the beginning of chapter 15, Vlad faces the realization that he has, in fact changed:

When had I suddenly become enamored of doing the right thing, rather than the practical thing?  Was it on the streets of South Adrilankha?  Was it in my grandfather\’s shop, when he said, so simply and quietly, that what I did was wrong?  Was it when I finally realized, once and for all, that the woman I\’d married was gone forever, and that, whoever she had become, she had no use for me as I was?  Or was it that I was finally faced with a problem that couldn\’t be solved by killing the right person; could only be solved, in fact, by performing a service to the Empire that I hated?

He realizes that Cawti had gone from hating Dragaerans (as he thought he did despite all of his friends being Dragaeran) to hating the Empire, just as he has been doing, and concludes:

By surrendering to \”right\” as opposed to \”practical\”, I had changed irrevocably.  But once you allow yourself to recognize necessity, you find two things: One, you find your options so restricted that the only course of action is obvious, and, two, that a great sense of freedom comes with the decision.((This statement resonates strongly with me in the current political environment, and cuts to the core of several discussions I\’ve had about the 2016 presidential election.  Supporting Clinton in order to defeat Trump is the practical choice, but is it the right one?  I suspect I know what the author\’s answer to that question would be…))

By this time tomorrow, Vlad Taltos, Jhereg and assassin, would be dead, one way or the other.

Knowing as he does that his career as a member of the Jhereg Organization and his life in Adrilankha are both going to end no matter what, Vlad at least has the freedom to act without clinging to the parts of his life that are already doomed.  He had in fact already made that choice when he testified, under the Orb, against the Jhereg – but this moment is when he fully realizes what his decisions have meant.

Change will, ultimately, always win out over stasis.  The synthesis of the Phoenix thesis and its antithesis is essentially a victory for the Phoenix point of view: while you cannot prevent change, you can decide how to handle the transitions in your life, and even use the inevitable changes to their greatest effect in improving the lives of yourself and others.

Going places

In addition to the general thesis/themes of transition and change, Phoenix has a particular interest in how people get from one place to another.  Means of transportation Vlad uses include:

  • Divine teleportation via prayer
  • Sea travel by ship
  • Being carried in a crate
  • Escaping through a hole melted in a jail wall
  • Teleportation via Dragaeran sorcery
  • Climbing through a window that has been ritually linked to the Halls of Judgement
  • Walking in circles through the Imperial Palace
  • Teleportation across planes (again, to the Halls of Judgment) via drumming

Other interesting notes

  • Fittingly for this liminal House, the events of Phoenix take place around the Dragaeran New Year; the revolt starts on the second day of the year.
  • We discover more details, and raise more questions, about the Interregnum (itself a 497-year liminal state) and how it changed the Empire upon its restoration.  The advancement in Dragaeran sorcery resulting from the pre-Empire sorcery practiced during the Interregnum seems to have changed Imperial society in much the same way as the Industrial Revolution changed Western civilization.  The biggest question that occurs to me about the Interregnum and its end is this: would a non-Phoenix have been able to recover the Orb from the Paths of the Dead?  Or would the need for the cycle to resume at the reign of the Phoenix mean that any such attempt would be doomed to fail?  (This is probably a question best tabled until we get to the Khaavren Romances, though…)
  • The cyclical nature of the Phoenix is also evident in Vlad\’s choice of destination upon teleporting away from Adrilankha.  He returns to the place where he originally performed the ritual linking him with Loiosh; he speculates that this may be the place where his life as an assassin could be considered to have started, and decides that it is an appropriate place for that life to end as well.  As the reign of the Phoenix marks both the beginning and end of a Cycle (and as the end of a cycle is the beginning of the next), that place in the wilderness marked the beginning of Vlad\’s Jhereg career and its end, and the beginning of whatever came next.

It would be easy to give in to self-pity, but I would only have been lying to myself.  It was a time of change, a time of growth…