The fourteenth novel in Steven Brust’s series following the exploits of assassin Vlad Taltos, Hawk gives us an older and more introspective Vlad than its predecessors Vallista and Iorich. After years on the run from the Jhereg, the semi-criminal organisation he once worked for, Vlad, a human in a world run by near-immortal elf-like beings called Dragaerans, decides that enough is enough: in an attempt to make sure he can see his ex-wife and their young son in safety again, he cooks up an ambitious scheme to get the Jhereg off his back for good.
It’s therefore both more and less conventional as a fantasy novel than many of the others in the series, which with their various structures and thematic focuses tend to examine the assumptions and tropes of the genre as a whole. On the one hand, the heist story is a classic not only of SFF but of all genre work. On the other, heist protagonists tend not to be quite as physically and emotionally vulnerable as Vlad is here: getting older, aware of his limitations in a way he hasn’t been before. The novel is, I guess, a sort of look at what it might actually be like to exist as someone like Vlad – a grifter, a chancer, a plotter of byzantine schemes – for longer than the timescale covered in a film or even a single novel. The answer appears to be “pretty fucking exhausting”.
Technically I think it’s a less interesting book than Iorich, which I reviewed last week, or even Dzur, whose chapters are interleaved with descriptions of the meal Vlad’s eating at his favourite restaurants: unlike those novels, Hawk features neither interesting commentary on the world Vlad inhabits nor interesting structural or formal games. It’s pretty laser-focused on Vlad’s predicament: perhaps appropriately, given that Hawk, the Dragaeran House for which the novel is named, is known for observation and perception, for focusing on the details rather than the bigger picture. But it does make for less scope than the other novels in the sequence. That’s not always a bad thing; but without anything to throw Vlad’s acerbic voice into relief it becomes apparent that there’s not a lot to the Taltos novels. They’re densely plotted, yes, but I couldn’t relate the plot to you a week later, or even sometimes five minutes after I’ve closed the book. Vlad is ultimately pretty one-dimensional as a character, or maybe it’s his tone that’s one-dimensional: either he or Brust is incapable of saying anything with a straight face, which somewhat limits the series’ emotional range. And it’s not as if the novels are especially interested in interrogating the moralities of what Vlad does, which largely involves killing people.
I mean, ultimately Hawk is fine, y’know? It’s the kind of thing you can burn through in a couple of hours if you’re in the right mood. There are some excellent descriptions of food. It’s just that I want a little more out of even my light reading, and the series as a whole can do and has done better.
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