Ordinary Human Language

by Brian Crane


So I’m rereading Steven Brust‘s Vlad series and this novel’s ambition threw me for a loop. On one level, I was happy to realize how the series–which reads as episodic–is maintained by carefully planted seeds that bloom in later books, which means the series is being written and not just the books. But I was also astonished to see the attention to structure that went into this book’s incredibly intricate approach to narration. Which I have to describe for later.

Three Storylines

There are three lines of action in this novel. Each set in a different time and each progresses at a different pace. They are:

Storyline A: Vlad’s Contract with Sethe

Storyline B: Vlad’s Childhood

Storyline C: Vlad Saves Morrolan


Each storyline progresses in each chapter, and each chapter follows a strict framework for advancing the three stories. Storylines A and B are each developed chronologically in alternating segments within every chapter. Unless I missed an exception, chapters always begin and end with fragments from Storyline A, and I’m pretty sure that most chapters had at least two fragments from Storyline B. This means most chapters divide their pages into at least five story fragments.

Storyline C opens each chapter and is always presented as an italicized epigraph. Read in isolation, these epigraphs narrate a single scene. Because Storyline C is an event in storyline A, there is necessarily a point where the two must intersect. This intersection occurs in the break between the last two chapters and is handled so as not to cause the last chapter to deviate from the established arrangement of story materials.

How is this done? The final lines of the second to last chapter (these lines belong to Storyline A) lead into the first lines of the epigraph of the first chapter (which belong to Storyline C). If you flip through the chapters reading only the epigraphs, they narrate the scene from Storyline A that occurs between the second-to-last and the last chapters of the book. The epigraph of the last chapter then recounts the final moments of Storyline C and concludes in turn with lines that lead directly into the fragment from Storyline A that opens the main text of the final chapter.


This is complicated, I know. (Trust me. I had to figure out how to describe it.) But this complication is not idle. It changes the most distinctive effect of the novel: its voice. This complication shifts the narrative point-of-view by “pushing” the first person narration of the earlier novels “inside” the book slightly, making it subordinate to the implied authorial voice that weaves Vlad’s three first person narratives into the book called Taltos.

This weaving is rich and can even feel self-reflexive (After all, Vlad isn’t the only one here casting a spell from disparate pieces of material.) But more important, it’s a sign of careful, skilled writing and it’s damned impressive.

Posted November 9, 2014