Tiassa is the thirteenth Vlad Taltos novel by Steven Brust, and counting Brokedown Palace and The Khaavren Romances, the nineteenth book to date set in Dragaera. Over on tor.com (where this review was also published), Jo Walton has written an excellent series of blog posts about the series so far so I won’t waste your time trying to summarize this amazing series and instead direct you to Jo’s spoiler-free introduction just in case you’re new to Dragaera.
Speaking of newcomers: while I think Tiassa is a wonderful addition to the series, I disagree with the Publishers Weekly review when it calls the book “very accessible to new readers.” Tiassa is a wonderful novel, but I’d go as far as saying that it could be one of the worst places to start for a newcomer to the series, because anyone who isn’t familiar with several plot lines and characters from past books would miss most of what’s going on. So, if you’re new to the series, stop reading this now and go find a copy of The Book of Jhereg instead.
(The rest of this review contains spoilers for previous books in the Vlad Taltos series, but not for Tiassa.)
The first thing I usually do when getting a new VLAD TALTOS novel is page to the end to check if the book has seventeen chapters, as is often the case. Imagine my surprise finding “Chapter the Sixth” and a Paarfi-style How things unfolded summary as the header for the last chapter before the Epilogue. Hmm. Closer inspection reveals that Tiassa consists of three large segments: “Tag” and “Whitecrest” have five chapters each, while “Special Tasks” has six. Add one short section titled “The Silver Tiassa” and we have our seventeen chapters — not counting the Prologue, Interlude and Epilogue.
In some other books in the Vlad Taltos series Steven Brust performs the literary equivalent of flying trapeze work by doing things like dividing each chapter into three separate narratives and keeping them all ticking along, or structuring books around a laundry list or a meal and somehow making it all work beautifully. Tiassa does something very different but equally surprising and skillful: it offers several separate stories told from multiple points of view, which pull together threads from the other books in the series while still delivering a coherent plot centered on a mysterious object: the silver tiassa.
The House of Tiassa’s line in the Cycle poem is “Tiassa plots and dreams are born,” and the chapter heading of the Tiassa chapter in Jhereg is “Inspiration requires preparation.” As you’d expect from Steven Brust, both of these are meaningful for the novel Tiassa: every section of the novel deals with a carefully constructed plot or scam that eventually turns out to be something completely different from what you (and most of the characters) thought it would be.
The first large section (“Tag”) is narrated by Vlad and is set in the time he was still running his territory in Adrilankha. He’s engaged to Cawti, and both Kragar and Melestav are still his employees. The story focuses on a complicated scam that involves the silver tiassa object as a red herring. The Blue Fox and Ibronka play a large part in it. This was my favorite section of the book because it’s set in my favorite part of the overall chronology, and Vlad narrates it in his own inimitable way. (In my own personal dream universe, Steven Brust produces one new novel per month set in this period of Vlad’s life. After finishing the series as currently planned, of course.)
The second section (“Whitecrest”) takes place after Vlad has fled Adrilankha, on the run from the Jhereg. It deals with another scam, entirely different and on a much bigger scale, again involving the silver tiassa. The five chapters are told in the third person and each have a separate point of view, including Khaavren, Daro, Cawti and Norathar. I’m not sure who the internal writer or narrator is: it’s definitely not Vlad, and the style is much too straightforward for Paarfi.
The third big section (“Special Tasks”) is written by Paarfi, in much the same style as The Khaavren Romances, and is set a few years later than the second part of the novel. A random Teckla finds a battered and bloody Easterner floating in the river north of Adrilankha, and dutifully delivers him to the nearest Phoenix Guard. Khaavren gets involved with finding out why he was injured, which leads to, yes, another scam that involves a certain silver object shaped like a tiassa.
Completing the puzzle, the shorter segments offer some revelations that should get Dragaera fans really excited, including a dizzying look through the eyes of Devera the Wanderer, and some things it would just be cruel to spoil, as much as I want to talk about them here.
Put all of this together, and you have a complex episodic novel that will reward people who are very familiar with the series or have recently read the previous books, because it features several characters we haven’t seen in a while and doesn’t provide much background about them. Yes, you could read Tiassa without knowing who Piro or Ibronka or Sara or Savn are (just to pick a few), but you’d miss out on most of the subtext. As a fan of the series, I still ended up at the Dragaera Wiki to check at least one name I vaguely remembered but couldn’t quite place. While some books in the series are fairly self-contained and can be enjoyed (if probably not fully understood) on their own, Tiassa has too many lines leading to and from other novels to work as an entry point to the series. Why PW called it “very accessible for new readers” will never make sense to me.
In the end, Tiassa probably won’t rank very high in my personal list of Dragaera favorites, if only because one third of it is essentially a Paarfi novel featuring Vlad. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Paarfi novels, but I don’t love them quite as much as Vlad telling his own story. Regardless, this is another great installment in the series. It almost feels as if Steven Brust is showing off: he covers a decade in the life of his main character while writing in several different styles and keeping a bunch of subtly connected plots going, linking back to previous books while also throwing in some new revelations — and then finally emphasizing that this is really just another stop along the way when Vlad muses, “Any point in a process looks like the process was leading up to it if that’s as far as you’ve gotten.” Yep. If you’re not reading the Dragaera novels yet, you’re missing out on some of the smartest and most entertaining fantasy around.