I enjoyed this! It’s exactly the kind of book I always imagine when diving into a new fantasy series but never actually get. Which is excellent, because Brust is apparently a prolific writer, so there’s plenty more enjoyment waiting for me.
The Book of Taltos is actually two books in one: Taltos and Phoenix, both entries in Brust’s Vlad Taltos series. As the Author’s Note tells us, this is the kind of series – designedly so – that you can read in pretty much any order. Taltos is chronologically first, and this was the only volume they had in Forbidden Planet when I was there, so here we are.
Vlad Taltos is an assassin in Adrilankha, a key city of the Dragaeran Empire. The Dragaerans are, broadly speaking, not unadjacent to Tolkien’s Elves: they can live for centuries, they seem to be physically stronger than we are, and they practice sorcery. They’re organised into Houses, each named after an animal; each House gets a period of time in power (this period of time seems to run into the hundreds or perhaps thousands of years) before the cycle turns and the next House rises.
But Vlad isn’t a Dragaeran: he’s a human, an “Easterner”, a despised ethnic minority. That identity informs his character deeply – which makes for a really interesting read from a perspective we rarely see in fantasy.
Surprisingly, Taltos and Phoenix are very different books. Taltos is a light-hearted, self-conscious quest story: Vlad is contacted by a couple of powerful Dragaerans who half-blackmail, half-convince him to join them on a rescue mission to the land of the dead. Phoenix is an interesting companion to Taltos: more serious in tone, weightier in content, and set at least a decade later, it tells the story of one of the consequences of that rescue mission – murder, bloody revolt, and the breakdown of a marriage.
One of the absolute best things about these novels is Vlad’s first-person narrative voice, which is ironic, irreverent, and utterly unexpected in what feels like such a quintessential high fantasy setting:
“Welcome,” she said in a voice that rolled from her tongue, as smooth as glass and as soft as satin. “I am Sethra.”
I’m not saying this is high literature: it’s not. But, and this is important, it also knows it’s not, and it’s not taking itself seriously. What it is is well-structured, with highly relatable characters (Vlad’s failing relationship with his wife in Phoenix feels just right, and exactly real – no romance of sugar here), and subtle, significant subversion of fantasy tropes. I do think there’s probably more to be said about why we value stories about criminals – Vlad’s a stereotype in that he’s an assassin, a person who kills people for money and who basically runs a mafia, but that he also has an inbuilt moral code so the reader doesn’t hate him too much. That could have done with more interrogation.
But The Book of Taltos is really solid fantasy, which is something I don’t say very much, and which is therefore higher praise than it sounds. I will definitely be reading more in this world.