Phoenix

by Steven Brust

Cover image

Series: Vlad Taltos #5
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: 1990
Printing: January 2002
ISBN: 0-441-00894-1
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 215

Buy at Powell's Books

This is the fifth book of the Vlad Taltos series and a direct sequel to the third (Teckla). I don't recommend reading it without reading Teckla first; you can pick it up as you go along, but it's a natural further development of that story. I read this book as part of The Book of Taltos omnibus, which is what the sidebar information is for.

At the opening of Phoenix, Vlad is still dealing with the fallout of the events of Teckla and his relationship with Cawti. Life immediately becomes more complicated when he's summoned by his patron goddess and hired by her for an assassination mission. He ends up in a sleepy island outside the Empire, one where sorcery and psychic abilities don't work and where he is supposed to kill the king.

The start is a solid standard Vlad assassination story, but matters quickly become more politically complicated. The political uprising from Teckla becomes more severe, Cawti is neck-deep in it, and the Empire is getting more and more involved. Vlad gets help from his Dragon House friends, but this goes clear to the Empress, and there's also a matter of a war. There isn't a lot in the way of dropped background and additional world-building except towards the end, but there's a lot of Vlad getting deeper and deeper into situations that are spinning out of his control. His arguments with Cawti continue to be realistically difficult and remarkably hard to place as the fault of one or the other.

Phoenix is a great example of how Brust mixes action with character development in this series. Vlad never spends long periods of time angsting or mulling over his life, but bits and pieces drop in the middle of other things. His emotions are all the sharper for being understated in narration and shown largely in his actions. By the end of this book, one can feel his desperation and his growing dissatisfaction with his life and his alliances. The ending is spectacular: a nail-biting bit of quick fighting and faster talking, twisty political resolution, and even a surprising confrontation with a goddess that's a classic bit of Brust's unexplained world-building. One is sometimes tempted to throttle Vlad when he says he doesn't care about the details just as one of the characters is about to provide a background infodump, but it keeps the pacing exceptionally tight and the setting mysterious and intriguing.

I think this is the best book in the series to date; it is, at least, high on the list. Vlad's world feels less silly, larger, and more complex with each book, and I love Vlad's wise-cracking style and bursts of dialogue. I also love that each book is short, pointy, and accelerated. I much prefer the moments of "wait, what?" to the normal slow plod through detailed explanations of everything. Even if I'm going to have to re-read this whole series shortly after finishing it so that I can figure out what some of the bits meant.

Followed by Athyra.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-09-06

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21