(Originally posted to The Library of Babel in late 2001, this is the second of several Brust reviews I’ll re-post here.)
This review contains massive book-destroying SPOILERS. Read on at your own peril.
Steven Brust is one of those authors who’s almost too clever for his own good. He plays all sorts of weird little games with the narrative in his books– one of the Vlad Taltos novels is structured around a laundry list, another takes place at two different points in time, Agyar is written as an accidental diary, and he’s written two thick books of Dumas pastiche– and he delights in confounding his readers (see his comments on Dragon). He gets away with this mostly because he writes such compelling and fun-to-read stories that you get sucked in despite any little games he may be playing (I’m told this makes his books damnably difficult to edit, and accounts for some of the stranger features of Vlad’s world…).
Orca is an excellent example of this. The book opens with a letter from Kiera the thief to Vlad’s ex-assassin ex-wife Cawti, inviting her to meet for lunch at which Kiera will tell Cawti all about her recent adventure with Vlad (who’s on the run from the Jhereg after the events of Phoenix). It’s then alternates sections narrated by Kiera with sections narrated by Vlad (describing the events of his day to Kiera, during the course of the events narrated by Kiera), with occasional interludes of dialogue from the Kiera-Cawti lunch meeting which indicate that the version of events we’re reading is not, in fact, what Kiera is telling Cawti.
Confused yet? It gets even better when you discover, at the end of the book, that Kiera the thief, who regular readers of the series have known from the very beginning of the books, is actually Sethra Lavode, the vampiric quarter-million-year-old Dragaeran Enchantress of Dzur Mountain, who’s practically a force of nature in the Empire. Which casts everything that preceded it in a whole new light. And if that’s not quite enough for you, the very last sentence of the book reveals that Vlad and Cawti actually have a son (which Vlad doesn’t know, and Cawti wouldn’t let Kiera tell him. One hopes that Noish-pa at least has been told of his great-grandson…).
You want more? Here’s a quick synopsis of the plot: Vlad, on the run from the Jhereg (due to the events of Phoenix) is now in the company of a semi-catatonic Dragaeran boy, Savn, whose catatonia is due to the events of Athyra. Feeling responsible for the boy because, well, he is, Vlad is wandering from place to place trying to find a cure. In desperation, he goes to the city of Northport, where he finds an old woman who agrees to attempt a cure, provided Vlad can keep her from being evicted from her house. It seems a seemingly wealthy businessman died mysteriously, and after his death his fortune turned out to be a sham, and now banks and businesses all across the Empire are folding up, and one of the defunct banks has seized the paper assets of one of the defunct companies, to sell off for cash, which means that the old woman (unpronouncably named “Hwdf’rjaanci”) is being evicted so her land can be sold. Except nobody’s really sure who owns the land, and the businessman might’ve been assassinated, and it looks like the Empire is moving to cover the whole thing up with a sham investigation, and the Jhereg may be involved. Vlad calls in his old friend Kiera for help, and they set out to unravel the whole thing. This involves breaking and entering, Vlad wandering around in disguise, rudimentary psychoanalysis of Savn, corrupt cops, upright cops, and an attempt on Vlad’s life. Which, believe me, makes more sense when you read the book…
The fact that Brust has the gall to attempt this tells you something about him. (You could learn much the same thing by Googling a few of his posts to rec.arts.sf.written, where he occasionally pops in to make a few gnomic utterances about the books…) The fact that he actually pulls it off is a testament to his writing ability. The plot is complex, and the way he tells the story is even more complex, but he never loses track of who’s where and what’s going on. Despite the fact that both narrative sections are in first person, it’s easy to keep straight which of the two is telling the story, as their “voices” are nicely distinctive. Neither really slips, either– it’s tough to figure out how Sethra’s thoughts would’ve made it into print, but putting that aside, neither narrative section gets overly flowery in the description, or uses too many nifty literary tricks to make things seem more immediate. There are a lot of places where “said”‘s are omitted that would normally appear in a spoken tale, but you’re free to imagine either Brust-the-translator removing them, or Vlad doing funny voices to keep it clear for the listener.
On re-reading the book, there are lots of little asides in the Kiera sections that take on a new meaning. For example:
“You’re in over your head, Vlad. I’d call for help.”
Vlad laughed without humor. “Call for help? From whom? Sethra Lavode? She’s taken on the whole Empire before. You think she’d do it now?”
There’s also Vlad’s musing that “We need to get Sethra Lavode to leave Dzur Mountain– figuratviely speaking,” and several occasions when “Kiera” mentions going “home” to pick things up or rest up for a while.
There are also a couple of hints that, in retrospect, ought to have suggested something was funny, like the way “Kiera” remembers trivia from past Cycles, and this bit, late in the book, where she’s talking to Savn:
“I suppose it’s reasonable to wonder why anyone watches over anyone. Vlad still doesn’t know why I watch over him, you know.” Savn kept walking along, oblivious to me and everything else, but at least not tripping over tree roots. “Come to that,” I added, “I’m not altogether certain myself.” [...]
” Guilt, I suppose,” I said. “At least that’s part of it…. I shouldn’t still feel guilty toward Vlad. It was a long time ago, and, well, we all do what we have to.”
This only really makes sense if you know that Kiera is Sethra, and recall that Vlad is the reincarnation of the founder of the Jhereg, who squabbled with and may have been killed by Sethra, back at the founding of the Empire. (And boy, does that sound stupid when I type it. Chalk another one up for Brust, for making that seem like a sensible plot element…)
There are a couple of problems with the book. The plot is very much a Raymond Chandler kind of thing– intrepid First Person Smartass narrator gets involved in what appears to be a simple case, and quickly stumbles into a tangled web of official corruption and business leaders out to screw the little guy, with people willing to kill to prevent discovery of their plots. As with Chandler (or Stout, or any mystery author working this vein), this necessitates a long scene toward the end of the book in which the whole conspiracy is laid out for the benefit of the sidekicks and the reader. In this case, that includes an overlong lecture on the economics of the Empire. The “businesses screw little people” aspect is played up a bit too much, but that’s sort of Chandleresque, too…
The bits with Savn are also not perfectly integrated with the rest of the plot. Which is understandable, as it is a side issue for the characters telling the story, but it seems to pop in and out of the story at odd moments. I’m also not sure I buy the connection with his sister, but then I don’t recall the end of Athyra that well.
On the whole, though, this is a very good book. Brust is on top of his game in this one, as the literary games all work well, and it advances the overall series plot nicely, in addition to having a nicely twisted plot of its own. The big revelations at the end change everything that’s come before, and are used to good effect in the books which follow. It’s not as much fun as Yendi or Jhereg, but it’s a damn fine read.