Friday, August 29, 2008

Dzur Review

I'm noticing a trend in the books I'm reading. Actually, my father noticed it first when he described John Scalzi's Old Man's War as a decent book that turns into a dynamite book in the last 20 pages.

Steven Brust's Issola was the same for me, only with a more dynamic shift. I actually wasn't enjoying it much about halfway through, and if it had been my first exposure to Brust's writing, I would have put the book down and might not have picked it up ever again.

But Brust has earned some patience from me, so I stuck it out. And I loved the ending, which so redeemed the book that I went back and reread it again.

Dzur picks up right where Issola left off. And that's a bit of a problem, because Issola promised us...

Well, ok, I should stop here. There be spoilers ahead, folks, so if you want to come at the book fresh, stop now and go get it. If you're a fan of Vlad Taltos, you know you're going to read it anyway, right? Come back after you have for the critique, so you can tell me where I got it wrong. And if you're not a fan of Vlad Taltos, stop reading now, head to your nearest neighborhood bookstore, and pick up a copy of Jhereg. Yes, I know it was originally written in '83, but if your bookstore doesn't have a copy on their shelves, they can get one for you. Yes, it's that popular, and yes, it's that good. Vlad's name doesn't get tossed around as much as maybe Elric or Conan, but he's as much an icon of fantasy as either of those worthies. Seriously, get the book and read it.

Ok, so Dzur... One of the interesting things about Steven Brust is that you're often conscious of the fact that you're reading a book that was written by an author, but it's still ok. Most of the time, writers work hard to disappear into the prose, so there's nothing between you and the story. With Brust, you often are faced with the conscious fact that there's a guy writing this stuff. And every now and then, he tries a neat little writerly trick, and it feels a bit like when your neighbor gets a new lawnmower with some special feature, and he's gotta try out that feature, even if he's only going to use it on a tiny portion of his yard. Sometimes, it's kinda cool, and you can share in the joy of watching your neighbor play with his new toy. Other times, it's just frustrating when it doesn't work as advertised, and everyone wonders if it wasn't built right or if your neighbor just doesn't know how to use it properly.

In this case, the neat toy is opening each chapter with comments about Vlad's dinner at Valabar and Sons, the assassin's favorite restaurant. Each little vignette just oozes decadence. Vlad loves food and Brust loves talking about how Vlad loves food. Food is to Vlad Taltos as pain and sex are to the anguisette Phèdre nó Delaunay.

It makes sense, of course. Vlad is back in his element. No more mucking about in the army or tromping about through rustic hinterlands. And the dzur who joins him for the food and supplies the pleasant conversation every good meal really needs is a neat character, one I hope we get to see more of. Honestly, it may be a writerly flourish, but the meal was my favorite parts of the book. And it mostly works. It partly depends on how you view a meal. Yes, a meal is like a story, and Brust does a wonderful job of explaining how the various courses of an expertly prepared meal has it's own rising action. Unfortunately, this relegates dessert to denouement, especially if there's no digestife course. And the big climax we've been looking forward to since the end of Issola happens in the chapter headed by the dessert. Even worse, it's not really the climax we were promised, but an anti-climax. The whole thing left me scratching my head.

Why did he need the Demon Goddess to send Telnan a dream to summon him to the confrontation? Couldn't he have, I dunno, sent a letter? Or had someone send a telepathic summons? Was there an issue there? Or is this just the proper way to summon a dzur hero? Or is it another example of Verra mucking about in Vlad's head?

Why does Vlad think the Left Hand will keep their promise? Yeah, ok, a pair of murders might make them think twice before they try anything, but I'm not convinced. They seemed to back down too easily. And we know Triesco isn't going to just let it go.

And in the end, things finish in an odd place. Vlad is still on the run. He's still not sure why the Demon Goddess is mucking about with his head. And if you take a step back and look at how the story is structured, his confrontation with Verra falls in the spot of the main course, which would indicate that it's the true climax. Which makes sense if you consider this book only a fraction of the story being told.

Which means that while Brust is still writing 300 page books, he's been bitten by the same massive-tome bug that's gotten to the rest of the fantasy lit field, and is telling 1,000+ page stories. The real story, I think, is what Verra has in mind for Vlad, and his relationship to the Demon Goddess. Dzur is something of an opening act to that tale, which may have its prologue in Taltos. As a stand-alone novel, Dzur starts great and ends weak. It'll probably be another two or three novels before we know if the entire story is up to the usual standards we expect from Brust. But since it is Brust, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

4 comments:

mxyzplk said...

I loved the initial Vlad books but he started to lose me... One book of Vlad divorce whining then one book of Vlad as not th e main character sent me off the rails.

trollsmyth said...

Yeah, me too. I had a friend who loved Orca, the Vlad-as-not-the-main-character book. He convinced me to read it again and yes, it's a good book. It's just not the sort of Vlad book we know and love.

The later books are the same. He spends a lot of time running, just trying to stay alive in Dragon and Issola. If you can set aside your expectations of what a Vlad book ought to be, they are enjoyable.

Dzur is almost a return to to the pre-Athyra form. Again, if you're willing to set aside what a Vlad book should be, you might enjoy it. Otherwise, I think it will be just enough of the older style to frustrate you thoroughly.

- Brian

mxyzplk said...

On the plus side, Vlad is the best inspiration for playing a D&D assassin ever!

Badelaire said...

Just poking my head in to say that Ghost Brigade and The Last Colony are pretty awesome books. It took me a while to get into Old Man's War, but once I did, I was hooked. Some really good stuff.

Ok, back to the Brust-worship (actually, I do like Brust - Phoenix Guard is my favorite Brust novel, however).