This review contains spoilers.
In his Reading the Child in Children’s Literature – which I’ve been re-reading for largely pandemic-related reasons – David Rudd points out that
despite the conservative form of much ‘low’ culture, it does not follow thereby that it is politically and ideologically moribund
To us SFF readers, that’s a statement so obvious as to be almost a truism: just because a text is written for a popular audience does not mean it can’t generate interesting effects. Steven Brust’s Iorich, the eighteenth novel in his Vlad Taltos cycle, seems to me to be a particularly good example of that principle.
Vlad Taltos, former assassin and a human in a world run by the nigh-immortal Dragaerans, is on the run from mafia analogue the Jhereg when he gets word that a Dragaeran friend of his, Aliera, has been arrested on trumped-up charges. It’s a political arrest, linked to a massacre committed by Imperial forces in the peasant village of Tirma while Aliera was Warlord, ultimate commander of the empire’s troops; the Jhereg is using the massacre to put pressure on the Empire to de-legalise drugs. With Aliera’s other, more powerful friends reluctant to act for political reasons, and Aliera herself resistant to any kind of help from anyone, Vlad must navigate the Empire’s legal system in an attempt to save his friend from execution.
In the complex Dragaeran social system, members of the house of Iorich are judges and lawyers, people with a passion for upholding justice. So one of Iorich’s central questions is: what is justice? Is it about strictly enforcing the law, or something more nebulous? What if the laws themselves are not just; or if the lawmakers are not motivated by justice? It’s clear that in Dragaeran society the application of justice is mediated by politics: those with power are able to make laws that benefit them, and are rarely prosecuted for breaking those laws, while those lower down the ladder are scapegoated in order to preserve the status quo.
What makes this interesting is that Vlad, the novel’s narrator as well as its protagonist, is relentlessly apolitical: he doesn’t care about the abstractions of justice or about the murdered peasants of Tirma, only about getting his friend off the charges that have been laid against her. His insouciant narration is interspersed with snippets at the beginning of each chapter from the investigation into the massacre which illustrate the various insidious ways in which blame is to be laid on those with least power: tone policing, leading questions posed to vulnerable witnesses, explicit pressure being put on the investigators to come to a specific conclusion. These snippets help create a counter-narrative to Vlad’s: while his victory condition, as it were, is to get Aliera off the charges that have been laid against her, justice would demand a different outcome for the Warlord in place when the massacre happened. So while the novel is formally conservative, with Vlad managing to restore the status quo by freeing Aliera and protecting the Empire from the Jhereg’s pressure, the counter-narrative pulls against that form, generating a profound uneasiness at oppressive political structures.
This is relevant to the series’ ongoing project of undermining the conventions of the genre. Vlad’s sarcastic first-person narration, his irreverence towards Dragaeran self-importance and his general lack of conventional morality all make him a fairly unusual fantasy protagonist. Particularly unusual is what’s happening in Iorich, where he’s working against the course of justice in a way the text is aware of: most conventional fantasy novels (barring A Game of Thrones and its imitators) have their protagonists working on what their authors perceive as the side of good, even if they’re doing so reluctantly or for pecuniary gain (as Vlad himself does in the previous novel in the series, Dzur). There’s a sense, then, in which the power structures the novel’s registering its unease about are those embedded in conventional fantasy: it’s destabilising our comfort with the status quo represented in these texts, asking us to rethink our relationship with consolatory fantasy. This isn’t an unusual textual stance in itself, but it’s not necessarily something you expect from long series fiction that’s heavily plot-focused; that is, from fiction so carefully aimed towards popular tastes. It’s not a perfect novel, but it goes down quickly and it’s doing some quite interesting things in its established universe; it’d be a good place to start reading the series, I think.