Sunday, January 21, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #21: Vallista by Steven Brust

I periodically fall into a reviewing slump, and a book like this is usually the culprit: a new book in a long-running series by an author I love, another in a line of works I've enjoyed for a long time and already spent thousands of words (here, and before that, for pay at the SFBC) trying to explain and entice people like you.

But this year I'm doing Book-A-Day, which means I have to write something about Vallista today.

That's not as liberating as it should be, honestly.

First up, I should explain some background. Vallista is the fifteenth book in a series expected to run nineteen books, which began as paperback originals in the early '80s, when both Steven Brust and I were young. (Well, I was quite a bit younger than him, but you take my point.) I've written here about the last few books: Dzur, Jhegaala, Iorich, Tiassa and Hawk. 

Each book stands alone, though that statement needs a "technically" as the series has gone on. You could start with this book -- the way the series has bounced around in time, you could start with any of them, almost equally well -- but many of the mysteries explained here won't be mysteries unless you've read some of the prior books. All the books are short, they all read quickly, and Brust has been a compellingly readable writer his entire career -- my advice now, as ever, is just to start with the first book, Jhereg, and then read whichever books you feel like, in order or not.

As for the "Who He Is and How He Came To Be" details, let me quote myself from four years ago, writing on the occasion of Hawk's publication:
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.
I'll add to that the facts that the aliens who created the Dragareans -- they're called the Jenoine -- have turned up in the series, and so are not entirely gone. And the Jenoine's helpers, who did the heavy lifting to transform humans into Dragareans over some unclear time-frame, are in many cases still alive, hundreds of thousands of years later, as the gods of this world. (Gods, as Vlad mentions in this book and before, have in common with demons that they can manifest in more than one place at the same time. What demons are, exactly, is still somewhat murky, but they are clearly From Elsewhere.)

Vallista continues that story, with something like a locked-room mystery. Except it's Vlad who's locked in, and he's very eager not to be murdered. He follows Devera, a mysterious girl who has appeared in every book in the series, and who is not a goddess but has some elements of her life in common with gods, into a manor house on a cliff overlooking the ocean-sea, because Devera says he needs to save her from that house.

But he can't get himself out of the house. And Devera keeps disappearing when he tries to ask her what's going on. And the rooms of this stately home do not seem to be connected to each other in any ordinary way. Some of the rooms, in fact, clearly seem to be several hundred years in the past -- not a huge deal for long-lived Dragareans, but discomforting for Vlad. More confusingly, this house doesn't work like any sorcery or witchcraft he knows, and offers direct access to the Paths of the Dead, an extra-dimensional space Dragarean souls travel through after death and which connects directly to the home of the gods. And both the sorcerous lord who owns the house and a demon are lurking about, with possibly murderous aims towards Vlad.

So Vlad does what he does best: he skulks around the house, tries to figure out how the rooms connect, talks to everyone he meets with threats and cajoling and subterfuge, and once in a while draws some of the many pointed and deadly objects on his person. Eventually, he figures it all out.

(Of course he does: it's a series. Surely we all know how series work by now?)

To repeat what I said up top: I like this series a lot. Brust finds new ways to write about this world each time, and Vlad's voice is fun and zippy as always. At least one of these books -- my guess is Dzur, looking back at cover blurbs -- was a New York Times bestseller. If any of those things sound enticing, give Brust a shot.

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