May 092016

Phoenix CoverIt was a dreary day and the seriousness of life was getting to me and I just wanted to get away. Phoenix was on my shelf. I grabbed it, settled in and tagged along as Vlad had adventures.

I have history with Vlad. I’ve known him since university. He can be difficult and has rough edges, even some anger issues, but his heart’s in the right place and he takes care of his friends. He also keeps a sense of humor even when things get rough. I like him.

I also like Steven Brust, or at least, the man I imagine him to be. A talented writer with a light touch and the power to be funny and enchanting, and also, on this particular night when things were getting me down, a steady voice telling me a story, pulling me out of my bubble and making things better.

I don’t think I can have enough books like these on my shelves.

Nov 122014

TaltosSo 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

  • Summary: Vlad is recruited to retrieve a staff and to save Aliera from the Paths of the Dead.
  • Time: The present
  • Duration: weeks

Storyline B: Vlad’s Childhood

  • Summary: Vlad’s training with his Grandfather and entrance into the Jhreg underworld.
  • Time: The past
  • Duration: Years

Storyline C: Vlad Saves Morrolan

  • Summary: Vlad invents and casts a spell that saves Morrolan from dying in the Paths of the Dead.
  • Time: The climactic scene of Storyline A
  • Duration: minutes? hours?


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.

Nov 112014

TecklaI was shocked by how dark Steven Brust’s Yendi is. I had forgotten. Reading it now, I wish I could remember what I made of it when I was a teenager. I suspect I was completely confused by anything that didn’t involve Vlad “working.”

What I find most impressive is the way this book refuses to present moral or political disagreements as simply problems of knowledge or of framing. They are also problems of love.

In this novel, people believe things strongly, but the best of them decide what to do based on whom they love and on the ways they find to keep loving them even across substantive disagreements.

You wouldn’t know that’s what the book’s about from the blurb on the back cover but it is. Honest.

Nov 092014

YendiBecause I’d already reread Jhereg, I started rereading the Vlad novels with Yendi. The characters are trying to solve a series of interlocking mysteries and have to consider the evidence and imagine possible scenarios. So there’s a fair amount of “what if” talk. But these sections are interesting and never bog down, and they are interspersed with quickly paced and complicated sequences that deal with other major plot lines: Vlad’s young business, his turf war with a more established rival, and a romance that involves real danger.

The book is a whirlwind. I’m actually not sure how so much gets packed into so few pages. But it’s really fun and looking back now from the perspective of the volumes that follow, I think it was a great place to start rereading.

Nov 092014

Years and years ago, I read all of Steven Brust‘s Vlad novels (or at least those that were available at that point), and I loved them. That in itself isn’t, unfortunately, the ringing endorsement I wish it was. I was a voracious reader and tended to have tastes of the same sort as Browning’s Last Duchess (who “liked whate’er/She looked on”).

Still Brust’s books were stand-outs. They were told by a protagonist/narrator with an amazingly distinctive voice that lodged in my mind’s ear and stuck with me. Years later, I could still “hear” it if I sat back and let myself remember.

Not long after starting this blog, I reread the first book in the series, Jhereg. Happily, it was as good then as I remembered it being in high school. In fact, it was better because, with more experienced eyes, I could see how cleverly written it was. So this summer, I decided to read the whole series in its order of publication, revisiting the books I knew and discovering the ones that had come along since I’d stopped keeping track.

It’s been fun, but my initial plan of reading right through the books one after the other has changed. The series is just too good rush through. (…really. It is that good.) So now I’m pacing myself and reading slowly to draw things out.

Dec 112011

JheregSo in the days leading up to my defence, I found myself at the Bibliothèque nationale and grabbed a copy of a fantasy novel I read long, long ago but remember quite well, Jhereg by Steven Brust. I remember it for one reason only: the narration. This is a first person novel told by a snarky, world-weary, sly guy who skips telling everything that matters except in retrospect and then always says some version of “Oh yeah, that thing? It was nothing.”

This is rhetorical trickery of the best kind. It allows the story to avoid having to narrate action or portray extreme states of emotion, both of which are difficult to do without appearing forced or even false. It also elicits a lot of sympathy for the narrator by setting up so much of the story as things he doesn’t need to tell because we both already know what’s up. This is the contrived intimacy of the coworker leaning in, eyebrows raised, and whispering “I know I don’t have to tell you this but…” and it works here. I’m asked to imagine a world I don’t need to be told about, which makes the novel a work of (my) imagination. Literally.

I was over a hundred and twenty pages in and having a blast before I realized how much of the story was just random invented actions, one followed by another, with no strict causality and few consequences. A few formal repetitions of action at the end provide closure as the overarching problem is returned to and solved, and then the novel was done. It was completely satisfying.

And I’m very impressed.