Steven Brust: Tiassa

Tiassa is book thirteen in Steven Brust’s Taltos Cycle, the ongoing adventures of Vlad Taltos set in a universe in which the world is shared between humans and Dragaerans — or between humans and Easterners, depending on your point of view. They really try not to have too much to do with each other.

In its broadest terms the story is simple: solve a mystery. This being a novel of the Taltos Cycle, that ostensible simplicity is composed of layers of misperception, misdirection, and obfuscation. The first question, of course, is “Is there really a mystery?” The second is, “What is it?” Rest assured, it’s not what it seems to be.

We start, more or less, with a possible attack by the Jenoine, a race of aliens who created the Dragaerans, at the very least, and probably some of the other inhabitants of the world. The Jenoine are not really kindly disposed toward their creations, and the feeling is mutual. There is rumor that a small silver figure of a tiassa with sapphire eyes may be able to thwart the invasion — if we are to believe Devera, who narrates the first part of this story, it was made by a goddess, and has unguessed potential. Vlad’s involvement with the whole thing is described in the next chapter, narrated by Vlad himself. And then it all gets a little looser as we move some while ahead in time and the focus shifts to another tiassa, or I should say Tiassa, Khaavren of White Rock, Captain of the Phoenix Guard, who finds reason to investigate the whole thing because of something else entirely.

There are those who will enter this book thinking it’s a collection of short fiction. It’s really a novel, even though it’s structured as a group of stories — they really do maintain a coherent, consistent narrative line, centered around a particular group of characters and relating various facets of a series of events that flow from one to the next. I had to think about this, but I’m opting for that narrative line as the deciding factor. But because of the structure, point of view shifts from Vlad to Devera to an anyonymous third person (although I have my suspicions on that one).

I should also point out that those who are not familiar with Brust’s work, or at least the Taltos Cycle and The Khaavren Romances, are likely to find themselves scratching their heads about halfway through, when the focus shifts to Khaavren. The diction also shifts, from the tight, acerbic voice of Vlad to that of a narrator who sounds suspiciously like Paarfi of Roundwood, author of the Romances.

Some, I suppose, would take umbrage at this sudden shift, but I’d like to point out something that I’ve found to be a characteristic of the very best speculative fiction: there are authors who mess with your head as a matter of course. One of the most notorious is Gene Wolfe, followed closely in my own estimation by Glen Cook. And thinking on it, Brust himself has done it time and again through the simple expedient of what is commonly referred to as the “unreliable narrator” — Vlad himself is as guilty as anyone, either because he doesn’t always know the full story, or sometimes because he just doesn’t want to tell us. The shift from Vlad to Paarfi as storyteller (I’m going to call him Paarfi, even if he isn’t) is just another way of doing that. And quite frankly, Brust is such a master of his craft that I’m not prone to bitch about it — I’d rather just kick back and enjoy the game. (A note on this, after further thought: those who have read the Khaavren Romances are going to have a leg up on the second half of the story: there are hidden identities that become obvious if you know that series, not so much if you don’t, because the revelations are fairly subtle. And there are resonances between Tiassa and the earlier series that make the whole thing more engaging.)

I find myself perennially amazed and delighted that Brust has managed to keep the Taltos Cycle going through thirteen books now and keep it interesting. It’s a measure of his abilities, I think, that he’s done it again, and it’s not merely a matter of formal tricks. Yes, the shift from Vlad to Paarfi is fun if you know the oeuvre, and may be puzzling if you don’t, but the story itself is interesting, knotty, surprising, and more than a little engaging. I suggest that Tiassa would have been successful if Brust had told it as a straight novel from Vlad’s point of view, as he has the others in the series. But nobody said he’s not allowed to have a little fun with it.

(Tor Books, 2011)

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