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Monday, July 16, 2012

Steven Brust: Taking the Chance

Vlad Taltos: a profile of courage.

In his Vlad Taltos novels, Steven Brust moves backward and forward chronologically, depicting his central character at key stages of his life.  Sometimes, as in Taltos, he also moves backward and forward within a particular novel.  In doing so, Brust frames the narrative with relevant moments or memories that have contributed to Vlad’s present circumstances. 

With Taltos, the fourth novel in publication order, we meet Vlad just after he has taken over his operation, and long before the marriage problems he faced in the third novel, Teckla.  At this point, Vlad has yet to meet Cawti, the woman who will become his wife, or any of the powerful people who will aid him in later adventures.  In Taltos, Vlad has just started running his business, following the death of his former boss.  The various activities he oversees include, as Vlad puts it, “untaxed gambling, unlicensed brothels, making loans at illegal rates, dealing in stolen goods…that sort of thing.” 

Lacking first-hand experience at running his territory, Vlad hires experienced people to assist him.  One is Kragar, with whom he’s worked for years.  Another is Quion, a recent hire.  Unfortunately, one day Quion skips town with some of Vlad’s money.  In the House of the Jhereg, which oversees all such under-the-radar activities, any sign of weakness is an invitation for your competitors to move in on your territory.  So regardless of whether or not he liked Quion, and regardless of the amount the man stole, Vlad must capture and kill him.  To do less means risking war with other bosses (such as that depicted in the second published novel of the series, Yendi) that will drain his resources, and may cost Vlad his operation, if not his life.

Kragar tracks the man’s moves, and learns that before he teleported to Dzur Mountain with Vlad’s money, before he even started working for Vlad, Quion visited Castle Black.  This places Quion within the company of people more powerful than the other territory bosses of House Jhereg.  Sethra Lavode, a legendary figure, supposedly lives in Dzur Mountain, although few have ever seen her and lived to tell about it.  She’s a shape-shifter, holds a Great Weapon, and is probably the most dangerous wizard of all.  If she doesn’t kill trespassers, she could easily turn them into animals.  Also, as a vampire, Sethra is a minimum of fifteen thousand years old.  Likewise, Morrolan is no slouch.  He’s a sorcerer, a wizard, a higher-up in the House of the Dragon, and a friend of the Empress.  His fiefdom includes Dzur Mountain, which suggests a link between himself and Sethra. 

With his back against the wall, Vlad knows what he must do.  In the hopes of tracing Quion’s movements, he requests an invitation to Castle Black.  When Morrolan extends this courtesy, Vlad knows the visit may cost him his life.  He may be trained in both witchcraft and sorcery, but Morrolan is a master of both.  As a Dragaeran, Morrolan is hundreds, if not thousands of years old.  Think of all the knowledge, skill, and power he must have accumulated during that time.  Meanwhile, Vlad is a human like you or me (or at least like me).  He is probably in his early twenties, and his lifespan therefore limited to several decades.  Vlad may be an accomplished swordsman, and practiced in the use of other weapons, yet more than likely, Morrolan is his superior in all these areas as well. 

Against Kragar’s pleading, and against Loiosh’s wishes (Loiosh is Vlad’s familiar, a sentient animal called a jhereg that is psionically linked to him, and the namesake of his House), Vlad decides to visit the floating castle without either of the two people he trusts most.


As I work on my dragon novel, I fear the rejections that accompany the submission process.  If I’m lucky enough to sign with an agent, only to find we don't get along?  If I’m lucky enough to see my manuscript sell, what if the editor at my eventual publishing house doesn’t like my work?  Or what if the editor who adores my work moves on, and my novel isn’t to his or her replacement’s tastes?  And then, there’s the most irrational (but no less worrisome) fear of them all: what if I don’t like how my life changes after I am published?  

After Vlad decides to visit Morrolan, he ends up talking with Nielar, his first boss in the Jhereg and now one of his employees.  Of Nielar, Vlad says, “I never know how to take Nielar.  I mean, he could have had the position I hold if he’d been willing to fight a bit, but he decided he’d rather stay small and healthy.  I can respect that, I guess, but, well, I’d respect him more if he’d decided to take the chance.”

Faced with so many dangers, yet yearning to achieve my ambitions, I take comfort in Steven Brust’s character of Vlad Taltos, a man who knows what he has to do, and does it.  He risks everything to pursue the life he has chosen.  If I truly believe that Fiction has much to teach us about life, if I truly believe that Fiction often contains more truth than so-called NonFiction, then I must follow Vlad’s example, or…. 

No.  Anything else is unthinkable.

Heading toward my own first meeting with Morrolan,
Dragon Dave

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