Vallista by Steven Brust

Rating 9.0/10
Brust deserves reading as a master-class on voice.

Vallista presents a Vlad Taltos adventure set on Steven Brust's fantasy world of Dragaera, set following Vlad's departure from the criminal organization introduced many volumes ago in Jhereg. For those keeping score at home, that's fourteen books ago unless one counts non-Vlad books set in Dragaera, such as Brust's swashbuckling parody-homage to Alexandre Dumas, The Phoenix Guards. (I mention this one because folks unfamiliar with Brust suffer at epidemic rates a treatable but acute ignorance of The Phoenix Guards, and that is Very Sad. If you haven't read The Phoenix Guards yet, we can wait for you right here. Vallista's open in media res delivers to new readers the background they require just in time — and in the right dose — to let you keep your head in Dragaera. In Vlad's voice, Brust depicts a Dragaera rich with with grit and texture, real-life details and personal quirks that transport a reader with the ease of the land's finest sorcerers. Vlad's nonchalant attitude toward alarming facts about his world and his circumstances support a lighthearted, entertaining feel even as his problems grow darker. Vlad's reflections on the absurdities of his predicament(s) couple with the banter he maintains with his venomous flying reptile familiar to infuse the work with humor throughout, but Brust also entertains by playing with the reader's love of literature directly. The opening sentence recalls Jane Austen and, venturing into the meta, Vlad expressly discusses with another character his account to the readers, in which he refers to facts he's chosen to leave out.

The self-referential game in Vlad's narrative reflects the multidimensional puzzle in which the main action occurs. Its builder's interest extended beyond the calculus of stone wearing before water and into engineering feats involving the connection of time-points as other engineers concern themselves with easing travel between locations. Built to solve academic problems for the sake of achieving greatness in engineering, it defeats linear examination. Readers share Vlad's puzzlement directly. In the hands of a lesser author, exploration might grow tedious; Brust employs voice and humor and relationships to keep attention while building a store of information that inform Vlad and the reader what kind of mess they're in.

Brust's fans from prior works will enjoy Vallista's addition to Dragaera's background. We've known about the conflict between Dragaera's gods and the Jenoine against whom they rebelled, but haven't heard much about the Jenoine's intentions for Dragaera. Why did Verra the Demon Goddess show peculiar interest in Vlad? What Vlad's been up to over all those past lives he learned about from Sethra Lavode so many books ago? Reveals await.

Readers frequently want to know how a fantasy novel with a male protagonist able to afford a sword and entitled to wear it in the street treats those who don't share the protagonist's class and gender. In Dragaera, genders appear to consistently get similar treatment (good and bad), and class prejudice is based on factors (e.g., one's House and one's status within it) that one can't readily align with real-world races. Some of the most stupendous badasses in Dragaera are women — the Empress, Sethra Lavode, Aliera, Verra the Demon Goddess, the Necromancer, and so on — and the narrator's position as an Easterner (read: human) in an Empire run by Dragaerans (seven-foot "elves" who live for thousands of years) has put him on the outside of mainstream society since the story opened. When Vlad belonged to House Jhereg, most of Draegera spat on him – and since the Jhereg decided it wanted him murdered with a soul-eating blade a few volumes ago Vlad's been more of an outsider than ever. In the land of the Dead — where did you think a multidimensional structure got its power? — Vallista has Vlad experience some past-life memories, including as a warrior woman. Brust’s stories are typically fueled by tragic flaws that stem from some character’s House affiliation, rather than characteristics assumed to be associated with some class of real-world person: nobles of House Dragon get caught in traps arising from their sense of House honor, those of Dzur get snagged on points of personal pride, those of House Yendi get caught in the elaborate schemes by which they manipulate others, and in House Vallista ... well, why spoil it? Vlad is a first-class citizen of the tiny circle of individuals with whom he makes relationships, and an outsider everywhere else. We nerdy readers relate.

Even if you shrug at supernatural murder mysteries, Brust deserves reading as a master-class on voice. Compare his narrator in The Phoenix Guards — featuring the Dragaeran historian Paarfi's curious priorities and comedic circumlocution — with Vlad. Then read some Paarfirotica. You could just revel in the voice, but this is like drinking alone: you’re better off with friends. In a high fantasy adventure, those friends are typically adversaries, supernormal threats, world-altering stakes, and characters you care about facing problems whose solution reveals the protagonist’s true self. In Vallista, Brust provides.

Read Vallista, and be happy there's seventeen more volumes to read in its world.

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