Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 35 (3/10) -- Iorich by Steven Brust

Is it necessary to say that the twelfth book in a series that began over a quarter-century ago doesn't stand alone? Perhaps over on the mystery shelves, such a disclaimer might have actual information value, but in the wilds of SFF, it's safer to assume that any later book in a series will be incomprehensible without a recent, close reading of all of the previous books. Steven Brust's "Vlad Taltos" novels aren't quite that opaque, but Brust doesn't go out of his way to explain any of the backstory in Iorich, the latest in a series that began with 1983's Jhereg. That's fine for those of us who have been reading these books since the early '80s, and the rest of you...well, The Book of Jhereg is in print, so go read that and work your way forward.

(I've reviewed the last two novels in this series -- Jhegaala and Dzur -- here, so I'll try to avoid saying the same things about Iorich that I said about those books. I'd also recommend anyone both interested in Iorich and unfamiliar with the series to look back at those reviews first.)

Iorich is a return to the main sequence of the Taltos novels after Jhegaala's flashback; that's been the pattern since the beginning: two or three novels of "now," and then one flashback. Iorich is also similar in structure to Dzur; both books open with Vlad returning to Adrilankha to help out a friend, even though he should stay as far away from that city as possible. (Vlad is an ex-crimeboss, and his former associates are very keen on making him much more comprehensively ex.) Also like Dzur, Iorich sees Vlad wandering around Adrilankha, talking to the same people several times and hoping that things will happen to him. Aside from the fact that it's now four years later -- though, as usual, Brust doesn't give any serious indication of what Vlad has been doing during that time, so we may have to wait for another ten years for a flashback novel to explain -- Iorich reads very much like a second run at the plot of Dzur, minus Dzur's over-complications (the seventeen-course meal structure, for example), and translating Dzur's more personal motivation with a plot that begins personally but opens out to much wider implications.

In Dzur, Vlad was trying to save his ex-wife from a secretive arm of the criminal enterprise that had made his life interesting for so long, but Iorich is a more political book: he's trying to save his friend Aliera (ex-Warlord, Dragon Heir to the throne, and all-around fourth or fifth most important person in the entire Empire) from being convicted and executed for something nominally illegal (practicing elder sorcery) that she's been doing openly for ages. Obviously, something else is going on -- and Vlad notices quickly that all of the Dragearans, the ones in positions of power who should be able to do something to help Aliera's case, are sitting quietly on the sidelines, waiting for someone like him to do the hard work.

Brust has always had a love for detective-novel conventions, and Iorich is another example -- here, Vlad is the outsider who can do what none of the insiders can, who can go around, ask the uncomfortable questions, find out the answers, and bring at least a rough semblance of justice to the world. His political sense comes out more strongly in Iorich as well -- the Empire is not precisely corrupt, but the Empress tells Vlad, in more or less these words, that she's only able to be the absolute ruler she supposedly is as long as she does what the nobles expect and want her to do.

Iorich is still on the languid side; the plot, once again, is "Vlad wanders around asking people questions," and he returns to the same few people over and over. (There's also a subplot about how easy it is to get lost in the Imperial Palace, but only a minor interest in food this time around.) The pleasures of a long-running series are mostly familiarity, and that's the case here -- Iorich is a fine new Vlad Taltos novel because it is a Vlad Taltos novel, and Vlad's confident, self-mocking voice pulls us through it and through the encounters with the characters regular readers will remember and appreciate from earlier books. It probably wouldn't seem like much all by itself, but it is a quite entertaining slice of a serial that's a little more than half-way done at this point. Again, this isn't the place for a new reader to start -- though the prior book, Jhegaala, could work as an introduction, since it is a flashback that sees Vlad outside of his usual haunts -- but, as a new entry in a series with a lot of established fans, it does everything it needs to do, and doesn't spend too much time explaining things they already know.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Richard Thompson - Meet on the Ledge [Live 2003]
via FoxyTunes

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