Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Dzur by Steven Brust

Dzur was the tenth of the "Vlad Taltos" novels -- there have been two since, and the plan is for there to be nineteen in all -- and was originally published in 2006. I carefully put it aside on a shelf then, intending to read it with the then-forthcoming next book in the series (Jhegaala) as a potential omnibus for my then-job as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club.

Well, that didn't happen, and so I finally caught up with Dzur recently since I hope to read the just-published twelfth book in the series, Iorich, in a more timely manner.

It's an odd and unlikely thing that any author's most self-referential, writerly, and deliberately overcomplicated series would be his most popular, but that's the case with Brust and the Vlad books; each one is precisely seventeen chapters long, many have complicated structures (as is the case with this one), the entire series has both a meta-story (who is Vlad telling these stories to?) and a deep background (how did this world come to be?) that flourish across the books, and they're not even told in chronological order. The Vlad books, honestly, look like the rare example where a writer works primarily to amuse himself but still finds and keeps a popular audience along the way.

Dzur was a return to the main sequence of the series, following immediately on the events of the previous novel, Issola -- but the next novel, Jhegaala, was then one of the periodic flashback novels, keeping to the general plan that no three straight books in the series can ever be allowed to tell the same story. Dzur also saw the narrator and main character of the series, Vlad Taltos, to return to the city he fled (with a death sentence on his head from his former criminal associates) many books ago.

But, as usual, Dzur isn't about some plot or scheme of Vlad's; Brust's hero is one who is buffeted about by life, not one who makes his own way. Every book in this series is about something that happens to Vlad, rather than about some plan of his that succeeds. For a supposedly super-competent crimelord, Vlad Taltos spends an awful lot of time running away from things, crying for help from his even more powerful friends, and just reacting to events.

Actually, what strikes me every time around is how talky the Vlad books are. There's some action in them, as there would have to be in fantasy stories about a crimelord, but they're absolutely stuffed with scenes in which Vlad talks to people (as well as the scenes in which he walks around, thinking about what he's going to say to or ask someone). Brust is one of the few writers in modern SFF who can stack up against Gene Wolfe in the long, frustrating conversation derby -- with Wolfe, it's because he's releasing the absolute minimum amount of information that he thinks is necessary for the reader to make sense of his plot, but with Brust, it seems to mostly because, if he's mentioned something in any one of the dozen-an-a-half other books set in this fictional world, he doesn't see the need to repeat it again.

So, in Dzur, Vlad comes back to Adrilankha, the center of the Dragaeran Empire -- and of the Jhereg crime organization that has a very large bounty on his head -- and immediately sits down to a big meal with a Dragaeran he just met (and who doesn't figure a whole lot in the rest of the book), which meal, spaced out course-by-course, starts every chapter in this book. After filling up, Vlad decides to try to save his ex-wife from her own mistakes -- as much as he can, which isn't actually all that far, and which does require him to put himself into serious danger. And the rest of Dzur is a series of events -- mostly conversations, as I said, often with the same people (even if, occasionally, they have different names) as Vlad wanders around Adrilankha in semi-disguise.

It's all awfully languid for a major fantasy series; yes, Vlad is in personal danger the entire time he's in Adrilankha, but he's the only one putting himself in danger. And his ex-wife really doesn't want his help. Luckily, Vlad now has a Great Weapon -- there's some power inflation in this series, as in inevitable in any long-running series, but Brust minimizes it by the simple expedient of not having a whole lot of action to begin with -- and that makes him a match for any six or eight opponents. (And Brust then creates tension by reminding us of just how many Jhereg there are in Adrilankha.)

The Vlad books have to come to rely more and more on Vlad's voice, and Brust's writing, as time has gone on. For readers who like that style -- first-person smartass, descended from Zelazny (though, as I said above, there's now threads of Wolfe and plenty of others in the mix, besides the ineffable Brustness) -- it's wonderful to have another dose. But trying to drop into the series at this point, amid all of the smirking and winking about things Brust half-explained six books ago, is not something I'd recommend. Some people like to re-read a series from the beginning in preparation for a new book -- Jo Walton recently did that for this series, in fact -- and I tend to look askance on any new book in a series that can't stand by itself without that kind of aid. But I have to admit that I still enjoy this series a lot, even though it really is designed to be re-read in huge clumps. Brust makes this book entertaining even for readers like me who only half-remember the previous nine books, and I guess that's sufficient.


Dirk said...

I remember reading all of this series that was out at the time, many years ago, but I would need to reread them all at this point.

But I recall really liking these books, so maybe I will do that.

RobB said...

Now you and I are even on the Vlad Taltos series. I've got the next to ready to read as well.

I remember happily buying Dragon & Issola from the SFBC.

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