Vlad Taltos is back. Not only is there a new book in Steven Brust's popular series, but Vlad is back in Adrilankha, having fled the city following the events in Phoenix and spending four books on adventures elsewhere. As with previous books in the series, some familiarity with the earlier entries is required to make sense of the plot, particularly Issola, which Dzur immediately follows. Literally: Issola ends with Vlad's intent to visit his favorite restaurant; as Dzur opens, he's just walked in the door.
Of course, Vlad being Vlad, it isn't long before he finds himself embroiled in a new adventure. He's barely gotten into the appetizers at Valabar's when he is joined in quick succession by a Dzur named Telnan (hence the book's title; each in the series is named for a noble house of the Dragaeran world, and that house is prominently featured in the plot) and a legendary assassin, and is forthwith alerted to dangers to his wife, Cawti, resulting from a turf battle over criminal activity in South Adrilankha. The rest of the novel largely concerns Vlad's attempts to find out who is responsible and kill them.
Again, Vlad being Vlad, things aren't quite that simple. The Jhereg are still trying to kill him, he's got a new Morganti weapon that snuffs out the souls of the people it slays, and there's some indication that his goddess is messing with his memories. As a result, he spends more than the first half of the novel trying to figure out what's going on. It's a testimony to Vlad's appeal as a character and Brust's skill as a writer that this process is vastly entertaining: Vlad's exploits—which include a lot of food and drink, exchanges of wisecracks with his jhereg familiar, Loiosh, and the purchase of a new pair of boots—are full of the audacious attitude and snarky dialogue that set the lighthearted tone of the series. The rapid-fire exchange of witticisms does occasionally grow confusing, especially when the characters are obviously referring to events of previous books that the reader may have forgotten, but since Brust also uses this as a method of hiding plot points until he wants them, all (well, most) eventually becomes clear.
Mention must be made of one of the book's unusual features: it opens, as previously noted, with Vlad walking into Valabar's, ordering a meal, and being joined by two unexpected companions. Each subsequent chapter opens with a description of one of the menu items—a course, drink, or side dish—which serves as the chapter's title. These descriptions are sumptuous enough to whet the appetite, particularly for those familiar with paprika, and by the end most readers will probably be wishing they could eat at Valabar's themselves.
There's more to this device than mere padding, however; the food provides occasion for conversation between Vlad and Telnan, who, as a Dzur, has a hearty—some would say reckless—approach to danger. Since Telnan otherwise vanishes from the story for an extended period as other characters new and recurring are brought onstage, the flashbacks to the scene at Valabar's serve to remind readers of who the character is and let them get to know him: Brust describes not only the food but also Vlad's and Telnan's responses to it.
Additionally, Brust has chosen to pattern the novel's plot after one of the most sumptuous multicourse offerings one could imagine. Each dish, course, and wine is expressly (if not always explicitly) related to the action of the chapter that follows it, and the results can be both affecting and surprisingly dramatic. It's debatable whether Dzur, strictly speaking, needed this contrivance, but it does add flavor to the story (as well it should, given the delicacies Vlad and Telnan consume) and gives Brust the opportunity to write about something that he clearly relishes.
To reveal much more of the plot would be to give away the fun: Brust has woven a labyrinthine tale that, despite its complexities, is a fairly quick read and moves along well. It's also the kind of story that can only take place in a well-established world with a large and familiar cast of characters, features that enable Brust to complicate his plot without having to worry too much about losing readers (although, as previously mentioned, newcomers to the Vlad Taltos novels are well advised to read Dzur's predecessors in the series, lest they become confused). And, of course, it's best enjoyed with a delicious meal and good wine.
Genevieve Williams is a freelance writer, an academic librarian, and a Clarion West graduate. She lives in Seattle.
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