Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tiassa by Steven Brust

Steven Brust is the renegade literary son of Fritz Leiber and Gene Wolfe, taking from one a devil-may-care attitude, a casually brilliant cast-off-detail attitude towards worldbuilding, and a sensibility just a hair bloodier and more calculating than the reader expects, and from the other a sense that every detail has been precisely chosen, a reticence to ever give a fact twice, and a sense of humor even darker and more secretive than Leiber's. The Vlad Taltos novels are Brust's central work: a sequence of thirteen novels (so far), set in a world many dozens of millennia in the future and (probably) very far away in space, in which the main characters are men and a race remotely extracted from men, with creatures called gods and aliens with the powers of gods lurking around the edges of the narrative but never coming close enough to be entirely caught by the lens of story. Each book has been a separate, discrete novel, ostensibly completely understandable on its own and telling a distinct story -- and, yet, that reticence of detail and worldbuilding sense mean that Vlad's world only makes sense through the slow accretion of those details, and through a conscious effort to bring them all into focus together.

Tiassa, that thirteenth novel, is actually not a novel -- it's three novellas, told from different points of view, all involving Vlad to some degree and tracing his interactions with a divine artifact in the form of a silver tiassa. (A Tiassa is a winged large cat -- see the one on the cover? -- and it's the symbol of one of the seventeen great houses that the Dragearans -- that race created from men I mentioned before --- divide themselves into.)

The novel is also called Tiassa because the central character of Brust's other series set in the same world -- a deeply droll and charming series of books called the Khaavren Romances, deeply influenced by a wordy 19th century translator of Dumas that Brust imprinted on when young, deliberately modeled on Dumas's Musketeer books, and ostensibly written by a long-winded and occasionally dim Draegearan noble named Paarfi of Roundwood -- is Khaavren, who is of the house of the Tiassa as well as being the captain of the Empress's personal Phoenix Guards. And Khaavren -- as well as his wife, the Countess of Whitecrest -- are as important to this book as Vlad is.

Along with those three novellas (or perhaps novelettes; it's not a long book), there's a bit of linking material to make it all flow, but those are all quite short (and only really will make sense to devoted readers of the series). The first is in Vlad's voice, set during his days as a crimelord (between Jhereg and Teckla, I believe), in which that silver tiassa statue is used as part of a con Vlad runs and in which Khaavren's son is involved. The second is in omniscient third-person, is set a few years later, when Vlad is on the run, and has at its center Vlad's then-estranged wife Cawti and the Countess of Whitecrest during an apparent major threat to the Empire. And the third is in the voice (uncredited) of Paarfi, with Khaavren as the central character and Vlad as a crime victim whose circumstances he investigates.

It's a particularly arch and oblique entry in the series, of primary interest to the kind of readers who re-read an entire series in preparation for a new book. For those people, Tiassa will be, I expect, another treasure trove of new hints and clues to place carefully next to the hints and clues from previous books to build a slightly more complete picture of the still-mysterious parts of Vlad's life. For those of us who prefer books to stand on their own, Tiassa will be somewhat less satisfying, though it's slyly entertaining and darkly amusing in all of its parts. But I would never recommend a new Brust reader start with Tiassa; there's far too much history and nuance left unstated here.

1 comment:

Alexx Kay said...

"Tag" is actually set between _Dragon_ and, er, _Dragon_, I think. Definitely before _Jhereg_.

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