Saturday, October 25, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #296: Hawk by Steven Brust

For longtime fans of this series, I'll start with the headline: after about a decade and four books, Brust finally moves the main story forward in this book. Vlad Taltos has returned to Adrilankha once again, and this time it might just stick.

The rest of you might want some background. There are many resources online -- and I've covered the last four books in some depth: Dzur, Jhegaala, Iorich, and Tiassa -- but the important points can be covered quickly. The Vlad Taltos novels appear to be sword & sorcery, first-person caper novels set in a fantasy world where humans are a minority and tall, magic-using, long-lived Dragareans (whom humans call "elfs") are dominant and whose empire has a complex clan-based social structure and a millennia-long history. Vlad himself is a human who by this point in the series has attained and lost a high position in the Dragarean House of the Jhereg (organized crime), gotten an Imperial title, become reasonably adept at human witchcraft (quite different from Dragerean sorcery), made close friends with many of the most powerful and dangerous Dragareans alive, and been on the run for nearly a decade from his ex-friends in the Jhereg. Underlying that surface is a deeper story Brust will probably never tell completely: this all takes place millions of years in the future, Dragareans are a genetically modified successor race to humanity, much of the sorcery may have a mildly SFnal explanation, and these stories (with a few minor exceptions) have been narrated directly by Vlad to a mysterious figure from beyond his world who is taping them for unknown purposes.

The subtext mostly stays subtext -- except in the most pyrotechnic book of the series, 2001's Issola -- but that does mean that the Vlad books look very much like secondary-world fantasy, and can be read as secondary-world fantasy, but the quack of this particular duck is in a subtly different tone. And it speaks to the kind of writer Brust is: sneaky, wry, laconic, driven by dialogue and by a drive for narrative novelty, unwilling or unable to repeat himself directly but perfectly happy to ring changes on the same situation. (Much as every other recent book has seen Vlad return to the Dragarean capital of Adrilankha: Dzur, Iorich, and now Hawk.)

Hawk is the story of how Vlad finally decides to get out from under the kill-order from the Jhereg; they've had a very high bounty on his head and a mandate to use soul-killing weapons since the events of Phoenix, where he gave up a member of their ruling Council to the authorities to save his ex-wife. (As in most organized crime groups, the one unforgivable sin is to use the law to win your battles.) That plan is baroque and complex, and, as we should expect from Brust, Vlad will tell us about the people who helped him put the plan together and the various items he needs for the plan, but not what the plan itself is until the moment he puts it into action.

So Hawk is much like Dzur and Iorich on the surface: another book about Vlad wandering around Adrilankha, talking to people and assembling his plan. This time, though, the assassination attempts are more frequent, somewhat sloppier, and are starting to rely on overwhelming force and ubiquitous coverage -- the old Jhereg tradition of setting one supremely skilled professional on a job hasn't worked in Vlad's case, so now they're trying other tactics. And those tactics are coming very close to working; if Vlad didn't have the massive magical advantages he does -- primarily a Great Weapon and a talisman that makes him immune to magical detection -- this would be a very short book.

The joys of a Vlad Taltos book are twofold: first, Brust just tells a captivating story on the surface, propelled by Vlad's instantly engaging voice and the quirks of his setting. The deeper joys are those of the serious fan, who is alert for the appearance of Devera in each book and keeping mental checklists about the background details of the series -- those require both much closer attention to Brust's word choices and offhand details and a deep knowledge and love for the series as a whole. I'm personally not quite at the right level to fully appreciate that deeper level -- only Brust and a few fanatical devotees really recognize all of the important hints -- but I'm at least halfway there, and it's a sliding scale: each sneaky reference caught is a pleasure, even if only a few are caught.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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