Pluralistic: Steven Brust's "Tsalmoth" (27 May 2023)

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The Tor Books cover for Steven Brust's 'Tsalmoth.'

Steven Brust's "Tsalmoth" (permalink)

They say "the Golden Age of science fiction is 12" – that is, the thing that makes "the good old stuff" so good is its suitability for preteens, and rereading that stuff as an adult (much less continuing to read it in adulthood) is a childish regression.

It's not true.

Or at least, it's not always true. Sometimes, the reason a novel sucks us in at 12 is that it is amazing, and, moreover, full of layers that make the book get better with re-readings, as new layers are revealed by our own maturity.

Let me tell you about one of those books. Actually, not just one of those books: sixteen of them, with three more to come.

I'm speaking, of course, of Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos novels, which started with Jhereg, published in 1983 – the year I turned 12, and devoured this book, rereading it four or five times in that year alone.

The titular character, Vlad Taltos, is a wisecracking assassin in a sword-and-sorcery world called Dragaera, where most of the inhabitants are extremely long-lived beings ("Dragaereans") akin to elves. Not Vlad, though: he's an "Easterner" – a human being, like us – who is part of a disfavored, oppressed minority, lower even than the Tekla, the lowest noble house of the Dragaereans.

We meet Vlad as a teenager working in his father's restaurant, regularly spit on and roughed up by Dragaerean toughs. Vlad falls in with the Jhereg, a Dragaerean crime syndicate, and becomes an enforcer for them, which lets him do the thing he enjoys most in this world: beating up Dragaereans. Soon, he graduates to assassin, and discovers something he likes even better: killing Dragaereans.

If you enjoy witty, fast-moving sword-and-sorcery – say, the works of Fritz Leiber – you will love those early Vlad books. If you like the wordplay and propulsive plotting of Roger Zelazny, those early books will knock your socks off.

But the Golden Age of Steven Brust is not 12. While those early titles hold up fabulously – and boy, do they ever! – they are merely the setup for a nineteen volume series that is now nearly done – Brust and Tor Books just published Tsalmoth, the sixteenth volume:

The Vlad books aren't just the story of a fantastical world and its rich history (though it is that, with a pair of side-novels set in the world's distant past, told in the manner of Alexandre Dumas). It's the story of the political awakening and personal maturing of Vlad himself, as he comes to understand the profound political corruption at the heart of Dragaerea, and also learns painful and profound lessons about his moral obligations to the people around him, Dragaerean and Easterner alike.

In his 1998 keynote for the Game Developers' Conference, Bruce Sterling exhorts his audience:

Don't become a well-rounded person. Well rounded people are smooth and dull. Become a thoroughly spiky person. Grow spikes from every angle. Stick in their throats like a pufferfish. If you want to woo the muse of the odd, don't read Shakespeare. Read Webster's revenge plays. Don't read Homer and Aristotle. Read Herodotus where he's off talking about Egyptian women having public sex with goats. If you want to read about myth don't read Joseph Campbell, read about convulsive religion, read about voodoo and the Millerites and the MĂĽnster Anabaptists. There are hundreds of years of extremities, there are vast legacies of mutants. There have always been geeks. There will always be geeks. Become the apotheosis of geek. Learn who your spiritual ancestors were. You didn't come here from nowhere. There are reasons why you're here. Learn those reasons. Learn about the stuff that was buried because it was too experimental or embarrassing or inexplicable or uncomfortable or dangerous.

This is Brust all over. His sword-and-sorcery is steeped in the literary traditions of the most mannered of fantasy writers – but also in the utopian socialist politics of the likes of William Morris. Brust is a Trotskyist, part of the cadre of Marxist fantasy writers whose work is notable for getting the ratio of vassals to nobles right – while Tolkien might sprinkle a few picturesque peasants in the background for color, Brust devotes multiple volumes of the Taltos saga to the vast, numberless peasants whose toil is necessary to maintain the perfumed lives of the lords and ladies who are normally in the foreground of high fantasy.

But while Brust's politics are deadly serious – and beautifully conveyed in his work – these books remain sprightly, witty, even slick. Some of that is down to Brust's literary theory, "The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature":

All literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool. The reader will like the book to the degree that he agrees with the writer about what's cool. And that works all the way from the external trappings to the level of metaphor, subtext, and the way one uses words. In other words, I happen not to think that full-plate armor and great big honking greatswords are cool. I don't like 'em. I like cloaks and rapiers. So I write stories with a lot of cloaks and rapiers in 'em, 'cause that's cool. Guys who like military hardware, who think advanced military hardware is cool, are not gonna jump all over my books, because they have other ideas about what's cool.

So: Brust's work is full of cool stuff: swordfights that put Inigo Montoya to shame. Food-porn of the first water, describing meals composed of imaginary foodstuffs that will nevertheless make your stomach growl. Deep lore to shame Tolkien, presented with the verve that's so missing from snoozefests like The Silmarillion. Snappy dialog to shame Raymond Chandler. Oh, and romance.

Tsalmoth is a romance novel.

A recurring character in the Vlad books – introduced in Yendi, the second Vlad book – Cawti is also an Easterner, also an assassin, and the great love of Vlad's life. Cawti and Vlad have a stormy relationship that is beautifully played in subsequent volumes, but their courtship has remained offstage – until now.

In Tsalmoth, Vlad has been convinced to recount the story of how he and Cawti came to fall in love, and how they planned their marriage. This is quite an adventure – it plays out against the backdrop of a gang-war within the Jhereg organization, with Vlad in severe mortal peril that he can only avoid by uncovering an intricate criminal caper of crosses, double-crosses, smuggling and sorcery.

But while Vlad is dodging throwing knives and lethal spells (or not!), what's really going on is that he and Cawti are falling deeply, profoundly, irrevocably in love. The romance that plays out among the blades and magic is more magical still, a grand passion that expresses itself through Nick-and-Nora wordplay and Three Musketeers swordplay.

Because this is a flashback novel, you could start your journey into the Vlad Taltos series with it, but you shouldn't. The elucidation of Cawti and Vlad's romantic bond works superbly as a puzzle-piece that casts previous volumes in an entirely new light, producing a series of a-ha! moments as new aspects of the characters' motivations in early books materialize.

You could read this book first, but you shouldn't. You should read all fifteen of the previous volumes – indeed, as I wrote in 2017 when the fifteenth book, Vallista, was published, you owe it to yourself to read them:

Partly, that's because of the brilliant stuff Brust is doing with the series as a whole. But moreso, it's because Brust is ridiculously clever in finding new framing devices for these titles. In Dzur (2006), the tenth Vlad novel, the entire story is told through the preparation and consumption of a meal that will make you slaver for a taste:

In Jhegaala (2009), the eleventh novel, it's a deep dive into the reactionary political economy of high fantasy, structured as a retelling of Hammett's Red Harvest:

In Iorich (2010), book twelve, we get a treatise on the true nature of policing, law, and the rule of law itself, and how an institution designed to defend the status quo can be seized and mobilized in service to radical political projects:

Then, in Tiassa (2011), book thirteen, we get a daring structural experiment, with a tale that unfolds through three linked novellas, spanning 10 years of Vlad's life: a caper, a political intrigue, and an absurdist adventure story:

In Hawk (2014), book fourteen, we get a fucking romp of a caper story worthy of Leverage or The Sting:

Brust has already completed book seventeen, Lyorn, and it's scheduled for April 2024:

I can't. Fucking. WAIT. I've been reading these since I was 12, and they're so very close to done, and while I dread a day when there are no more Vlad novels in the pipeline, I am also so excited about the landing that Brust is about to bring this series in for. Tsalmoth feels like the windup for a final pitch that'll have us all scraping our jaws off our chests. Never before have I trusted an author with so much anticipation.

So: you owe it to yourself to go read the previous fifteen volumes, then Tsalmoth, then to pre-order Lyorn. And while you're waiting for Brust to finish those final two books, try some of his non-Vlad titles.

I loved The Incrementalists, the 2013 heist novel he wrote with Skyler White about a secret society of immortal, perpetually reincarnated – and dysfunctional – secret masters of society, who've been driving civilization in secret for millennia:

And then there's 2018's Good Guys, another secret society caper novel told in vantablack noir style, a police procedural with magic:

Also, if you love books about art – thinking, for example, of Chiam Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev – try Brust's The Sun, The Moon and The Stars, which might be the best novel ever written about painting:

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