What’s the difference between a fun book and a good book?
I’ve been thinking about Steven Brust’s Vallista, the fifteenth (!) novel in his Vlad Taltos cycle, in the context of Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade, which I reviewed earlier in the week and which I read around the same time as Brust’s novel. I didn’t enjoy Hurley’s novel that much, for reasons that are largely personal, but I still thought it was a better book than Vallista, a novel that I quite enjoyed while I was reading it but hardly remember now. Why is that?
Vlad Taltos is an assassin in a medievally-flavoured fantasy world ruled by the elf-like, long-lived Dragaerans. Humans like Vlad – “Easterners” in Dragaeran parlance; in a nice worldbuilding touch, both Dragaerans and Easterners lay exclusive claim to the term “human” – are the reviled underclass, grudgingly tolerated but with no real access to political power. Vlad, however, has risen to a precarious kind of prominence through his association with the Jhereg, the Dragaeran mafia, although by the time Vallista takes place he’s somewhat fallen out with them. The novel sees him trapped in a strange mansion whose layout seems to defy spatial logic, and which, as he gradually discovers, apparently occupies several different points in time at once. Who built the mansion, and why? What is the large pale monster that roams its halls? And why is Devera, the enigmatic, not-quite-temporally-stable child of one of Vlad’s Dragaeran friends, trapped within its halls?
The problem, I think, is that it’s a very…mechanics-heavy novel, very interested in the precise details of how its setting works and how its various magical systems interact. As such it stands in sharp contrast to the other novels in the series, at least those I have read, which tend to thrust Vlad into the heart of dangerous political situations, forcing him to confront the oppressive forces at the heart of the Dragaeran empire, or the amoral self-interest that characterises the members of the Jhereg. Put another way, it’s hard to see why we should care about any of the revelations of Vallista. What do they have to say about Vlad, or about how our own world works? Why are they important?
Whereas, if you’ve read my review of The Light Brigade, or indeed anything about the novel at all, you’ll know that it wears its relevance very much on its sleeve; it has an enormous amount to say about late capitalism and illiberalism and the military-industrial complex. Hurley exploits her time-travel conceit in service of her novel’s ideological stance, her military protagonist’s confusion at where she is in her personal timeline enacting the powerlessness of the individual under neoliberalism; Brust, meanwhile, uses time travel as merely another puzzle for Vlad to solve. I may struggle with the bleakness and brutality of Hurley’s artistic vision, but, for my money, she’s simply better at using generic tropes to achieve specific textual effects. That, it turns out, is what I value as a reader; that, for me, is what the difference is between a fun book and a good book.