by Steven Brust

Cover image

Series: Vlad Taltos #4
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: March 1988
ISBN: 0-441-18200-3
Format: Mass market
Pages: 181

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If Brust were writing the Vlad Taltos series in chronological order, this would be the first book of the series. The books do stand alone fairly well, this one in particular, so you could start the series here if you want. You'd lose the fun of having it fill in backstory, though.

As advertised on the cover, at least of my edition, this is where we finally find out what happened when Vlad walked the Paths of the Dead, an event referred to in several other books. More generally, this is Vlad's backstory, telling his first major interaction with House Dragon and finally shining some light on why he has such powerful friends and a ready source of Dragaeran assistance when he really needs it. Mixed in with that story are frequent flashbacks telling of his early life, his training with his grandfather, and his early career with House Jhereg.

I think this is the strongest book of the series to date. It's action-heavy, blends some of the Jhereg politics (particularly in the flashbacks) with the more fantastic magical battles and conflicts of the Dragaerans, and fills in satisfying chunks of metaphysical background in Brust's infodump-free way. As with the other Vlad books, it spins off questions and dropped hints constantly, but this book fills in as many details as it raises questions. I particularly like Morrolan and Sethra Lavode as characters, and they get lots of screen time here.

The Vlad Taltos series has the tightest first-person perspective I think I've ever read. If Vlad decides he doesn't want to ask about something, or can't, we don't find out the answer. If Vlad isn't interested in something, the story doesn't follow it. This includes all the bits of the world background, and Vlad assumes the reader knows the world almost as well as him, leading to a full-speed-ahead narrative style with background bits dropped in passing or mentioned only obliquely. Since the series rests on the strength of Vlad as a first-person narrator, getting a solid chunk of his background improves the series as a whole by helping me get deeper into his head.

This is one of the meatier bits of explanation in the series to date, but fundamental questions that most books of this type would answer (like "who is Sethra Lavode and why do people react like this to her") are never answered directly. This can be infuriating, but it's also what gives the series its addictive pull. Brust throws the world at you in a barrage of jigsaw pieces and fitting them together while Vlad is in the middle of an urgent plot is much of the fun. It helps Taltos in particular through some of the slow spots of its adventure and exploration plot; descriptions that might otherwise feel like filler become additional hints and tidbits of background material.

The most likely critique of this book is that, apart from the flashback material about Vlad's background, it reads a bit like two sittings of a D&D dungeon exploration. The first part, where Vlad helps with a raid on a sorcerer's home, suffers from this the most. The Paths of the Dead trip later has less simple combat and more metaphysics, and hence feels a bit less cliched (even if there's a bit of a deus ex machina). Whether this bothers you probably depends on how much originality you feel Vlad's wisecracks add, and the flashback segments are great regardless.

Whenever reading one of these books, I feel like I should be taking notes so that I don't miss any of the background pieces. I wish at times that it were a touch less confusing and oblique. But there are few fantasy series that pack as much action, neat ideas, and pure entertainment in as few pages as Vlad Taltos, and this is the best book so far. Definitely recommended.

Followed by Phoenix.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-09-02

Last spun 2022-02-06 from thread modified 2013-01-04