Issola is a book that reveals secrets. It's a book that releases world-shattering energies, features gods and even more powerful creatures as main characters, and explains the origins of magic and sentient life. It also features Vlad Taltos, sarcastic skuldugger extraordinaire, making wisecracks as usual about everything and anybody. Unfortunately, the combination doesn't work.
Issola is the ninth book featuring the character Vlad Taltos. It's the twelfth book set in the "Dragaera" universe. You don't write twelve books in the same world without accumulating a lot of baggage: Issola is full of references to the prior adventures of Vlad and his friends, making it difficult for the new reader. Then again, the series has never been simple: the timeline of the Vlad Taltos books in particular has always been tangled. Brust has never written them as one straightforward storyline or even in the market-approved style of the trilogy: individual books take place at various chronological points and rarely proceed in sequence. It's one of the reasons Brust is such an exciting writer: he's able to seamlessly shift between past and future from novel to novel and still maintain a unified whole, mainly through the strong character of Vlad, whose wisecracks and worldview keep the stories together. Vlad is an Easterner, a being like us, in a land of millennia-old sorcerer-giants bound in a complex magical caste system. We've seen him evolve from book to book from a simple blade-for-hire to a conscience stricken outlaw, and while his wry sense of humor hasn't changed, his deepening moral involvement in the culture around him has made the series more and more interesting.
The titles of the books also serve to bind them together. All but one of the books so far have featured the name of a creature from Brust's world. An Issola is a white fisherbird, graceful yet deadly, which strikes invisibly and quickly to get its prey. The Issola is also the name of a House of Dragaerans, the alien beings who inhabit Brust's world. All Dragaerans belong to a House, and their inward characters reflect the tendencies of the animals to which their house is mysteriously linked. The Dragaeran Empire is founded on a Cyclical caste system. The different Houses rule in a prophesied order, the Cycle, and serve foreordained roles with Dragaeran society. The Issola are diplomats and minstrels, dedicated to good manners and making society function smoothly. "Issola strikes from courtly bow," as the "poem of the Cycle" attests. Vlad, by virtue of a title bought by his father, belongs to the Dragaeran House Jhereg, the house of murderers and thieves, which "feeds on others' kills": Vlad himself travels with a venomous jhereg familiar named Loiosh. This novel spends a lot of time dealing with Vlad, the master of impoliteness, dealing with more polite society, as represented by the Issola. The chapter titles reflect this: "Fishing Etiquette," "How to Break Unwelcome News," "When Negotiation Becomes Strained". . . .
Of course, the primary reason that Brust named this novel Issola is because of the presence of Lady Teldra. Lady Teldra, the chatelaine of the mystical Castle Black, is a familiar background character from Brust's other novels, where her unflappability and constant good humor make her a comic foil for the mischievous Vlad as he tries to crack her shell of persistent fine manners. In this novel she comes into her own as a woman whose diplomatic skills are important for the very survival of sentient life. There's a stark contrast between the smooth, polished Issola, who schmoozes with Gods, and Vlad, who is constantly getting upbraided and punished for his sass. By the end of the novel, Vlad has incorporated Teldra's lessons into his own demeanor, marking quite a sea-change for his character. It's a good thing, really, because part of what makes this novel difficult to read is Vlad's constant mouthing off to things that could swat him like a bug. Even with his own patron deity, Verra, Vlad is rude, abrupt, and insulting, which is certainly in character, but which gets annoying to read after a time.
Another difficulty with this novel is the interplay between Vlad and his "friends" Morrolan and Aliera. Morrolan and Aliera are Dragaerans of House Dragon; they're also near-immortal super-wizards bearing weapons of immense power, with the ability to slaughter armies of mere mortals at a breath. They're arrogant and haughty and have stepped right out of heroic myth. Brust incorporates several styles of writing into his Dragaera books: the novels The Phoenix Guards and Five Hundred Years After, for instance, are written in the style of Alexander Dumas's Three Musketeers series. The Taltos books have always had a more modern feel, mixing Raymond Chandler with "Mission: Impossible" and a dollop of Eisenstein; they range from descriptions of petty street crime to mercantile intrigue to metaphysical adventure to army battles to Marxist revolution. Brust's ability to mesh these different types of stories into one coherent whole has been one of the things that has kept me reading. However, in this novel the combination of the tortured, wisecracking Vlad Taltos and the inhumanly arrogant Morrolan and Aliera is off-putting. Brust attempts to humanize the two of them, fleshing out their characters, but it ultimately fails because they are too different from Vlad and because they seem to have emerged from a different book altogether.
Despite all these criticisms, Issola is probably a necessary read for anyone who follows the series, because of its revelations. We learn the history of the world, the origins of sorcery, the characteristics of the Sea of Chaos and its powers, and the origins of the various races who share the world: the aboriginal Serioli, the megalomaniacal Jenoine, the Gods, the Dragaerans, and the Easterners, and the full powers and abilities of Spellbreaker, Vlad's enchanted weapon. These are all things that Brust has been hinting at for several books now, that fans of the series have been speculating about endlessly on message boards and over email, and in this novel they are definitively and authoritatively explained. Some of the revelations about the gods and other "supreme" beings reflect the creative origins of the books themselves. Brust's Dragaera began its existence as the setting for a role-playing game (as did Raymond Feist's Midkemia books), so it's not too surprising that the gods prove to be merely mortal, with powers similar to those of the main characters, but greater. Battles with gods thus become possible and winnable. The book ends with a spectacular battle scene, with dominion over the world itself at stake. It's going to be hard for Brust to top himself, after pitting most of his superpowerful characters against each other.
The end of the novel suggests a return for Vlad to his accustomed character and his old city haunts. Vlad has spent two novels, Athyra and Orca, cut off from most of the people who know him. Athyra was a pastoral with a peasant boy, Savn, as the prime viewpoint character. Vlad's relationship with Savn grew more complex through Orca, which comes just before Issola in the series' internal chronology. These two novels focused on the social implications of the genetic caste system that Brust has created, involving Vlad deeply in questions of social inequality. Savn was not popular with a number of Brust's readers, and he's barely mentioned in this book. Issola is much simpler: the main issues are metaphysical, not social, and the book returns Vlad to the realm of easy violence and difficult opponents.
Issola is short and expensive, a combination I don't much appreciate: it's been released as a 255 page hardcover with a large typeface and a lot of white space, retailing for $23.95. This is only the second book in the Vlad Taltos series to be published in hardback, so this is a sign that he's receiving increased respect from booksellers, but for the reader it's a mixed blessing. The book also isn't as polished as his prior efforts, with several typos and flatter wit than Brust is capable of. I recommend waiting for a cheaper, hopefully cleaner paperback edition.
Brust's Dragaera books have broadened the field of commercial fantasy. Issola doesn't really stretch the limits of the genre, but it does explore the mystic side of Brust's fantasy world and resolve a lot of the questions that have hovered over Vlad Taltos. It's not the right book to begin the saga; those new to Brust should probably pick up the newly-released Book of Jhereg, an omnibus edition of the first three Taltos novels in order of publication (Jhereg, Yendi, and Teckla -- a good trio to begin with). Nevertheless, Issola takes Vlad Taltos to new realms, and it's no doubt a necessary read to understand future happenings in the series.
Fred Bush started graduate study in English Literature at the University of Rochester this fall. His previous appearances in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.
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