I’ve been a fan of Brust’s Draegera books since 1988 or so, and all have a spot on my physical bookshelves. So clearly, I am a fan, and clearly, as a series that’s been around for thirty years, you probably shouldn’t start at the most recent book. Go back to the beginning and read Jhereg (ha! A little joke for those of us in the in-group). I’ll wait.
Vallista begins somewhat awkwardly, with Vlad talking to the reader a bit about where he is, mentioning that Vlad is ‘a human assassin in possession of an important mission.’ It’s intentionally misleading, perhaps as an in-joke for old readers, so that Brust Vlad can pull a narrative twist.There isn’t much more background in the way of the complex society or Vlad’s background to date.
Shenanigans over, it gets into the meat of the story quite quickly when Devera asks him for help and leads him to an immense building near the cliffs of Kieron’s Watch. Vlad goes inside, in short order meets a ghost and becomes trapped in the oddest house-escape story I’ve ever read (I wonder, did Brust come up with this after doing one of those Escape Rooms?). In total Vlad fashion, it’s a completely twisty story that has trademarks of his head-first approach, closed-mouth problem-solving, and sarcastic commentary with his familiar, Liosh (Think Hearne’s Iron Druid series, without the characterization problems).
First person point of view works fine here, as Vlad is an astute observer of his surroundings. He is also a human, known as an ‘Easterner,’ in a society of elf-like, long-lived Dragaerans (who call themselves ‘human,’ but don’t let that confuse you), giving him an outsider perspective on the mechanisms of the elaborate characteristics of Dragaeran society. The society has an elaborate, highly formalized social structure based on seventeen Houses that seem to have both genetic and cultural traits. Each book to date has been named after one of the houses, and this building at the center of this story was built by two very clever Vallistas.
Vlad is, on his better days, a generally intelligent and humorous narrator, although he is well aware that he is generally the one who finds his jokes funniest (much like Elvis Cole in the mystery series). I did find myself chuckling quite a bit, which was nice.
“Are we going after it, Boss? [said Liosh]
‘After it? Are you nuts? What if we caught it?’
‘I love it when you break out in common sense.‘
I kept walking.
‘Boss, you said–‘
‘We aren’t going after it. We’re just going in the same direction.'”
While the plot focuses on helping Devera and escaping the Vallista complex, the larger picture fits into an ongoing issue of the Taltos books, so I’m not sure it would be an appropriate place to start. Except for Hawk, the most series books have had an underlying plot building about the formation of the Dragaeran Empire came about, and a mysterious race called the Jenoine. Yes, I think it’s fair to say that it isn’t the place to begin the series. It does provide some significant information about questions that arose in Tiassa.
I hope that Brust will be able to finish what should be a seventeen book series and give the Dragaeran Cycle it’s full due. However, should he not, at least he didn’t only get into the first couple books of a linear, multi-book tale and leave the reader hanging. For that, he deserves kudos.