Entries from October 2016 ↓

Thinking About Dragaera: Orca

\”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.

About Orca

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((In fact, Vlad never once sets foot on a ship during the events of Orca.)).  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((There isn\’t a direct one-to-one mapping that I know of, but the Orca try to ensure that if one person outranks another in naval rank, the noble hierarchy does not contradict that.)).  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.

About Orca

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((As a result of this nesting, the events of the book aren\’t always told in order; I won\’t necessarily be preserving the narrative order in this synopsis.)).

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((Let\’s just take the comparison to a certain presidential candidate as understood, shall we?)).

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((The Special Tasks Group is headed by Lord Khaavren, who was also commanding the Phoenix Guard in Teckla.  Between the publications of Teckla and Orca, the first two books of the Khaavren Romances were also published; I will get to those in due course.)) 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((Including Hwdf\’rjaanci – though her land and cottage are worth enough money to attract the Orcas\’ avarice, her desire to keep her home has little to do with its value in Imperials; her monetary savings, lost in the bank collapse, are never recovered.)).

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((I, for one, am inclined to believe what I read here; if nothing else, Kiera\’s true identity clearly didn\’t make it into the story Kiera told Cawti, so we must be getting at least a somewhat unexpurgated version of the truth.)).

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.

Next Time

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…