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Orca by Steven Brust2.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsSay what you will about Steven Brust, he certainly can’t be accused of churning his series novels out as if they were widgets on an assembly line, a la Piers Anthony (f’rinstance). The three-year gap following the uncharacteristically disastrous Athyra was well-advised, as Orca is certainly an improvement. But while it has a pretty compelling and intelligent premise, it can’t quite be considered a return to form by the series’ standards, as it is far too talky and tedious in the execution.

The story begins when Vlad — still on the run from the vengeful house of Jhereg — seeks out a hedge-wizard in order to heal the boy Savn, who saved Vlad’s life in Athyra and is in some sort of perpetual catatonic stupor as a result. The old woman Vlad finds asks a small favor in return. She is about to be evicted from her land for no good reason, and would like Vlad’s help in doing something about it. Seems easy enough.

Vlad discovers that the land the house is on is owned by a company that was itself owned by a prominent financier named Fyres, who has recently died in a boating accident. Vlad enlists the aid of his old friend, the wily thief Kiera, and together they learn more than they ever bargained for. Fyres, it seems, was a con artist nonpariel, and though he seemed to be worth millions, it was all on paper. Most of his companies were shells. He simply lived lavishly on massive loans, which involved so many banks and noble houses that when the extent of his mendacity became known after his death, the resulting crash from all of those loans defaulting could very well topple the empire financially.

Vlad and Kiera discover that Fyres, in all likelihood, was murdered, although his murder would be counter-productive on the part of any of his creditors as Fyres’ death would almost certainly spell their ruin as well. But murdered he seems to have been, and what’s more, it appears that imperial officials are simply going through the motions of an investigation into Fyres’ death, finding it accidental with all-too-obvious haste and covering up the real circumstances. So exactly how widespread is this conspiracy, and how high up does it go? And exactly who would benefit at the end of the day?

Past novels in the series have always had elements of the detective story in them. Even when Vlad was at his height as an assassin, his exploits always involved loads of entertaining snooping, skulking, spying, information gathering, and tough talk that would do Bogart proud (though, as I’ve said before, the snark was occasionally overkill). Orca is the series’ most openly Philip Marlowe-ish little opus. And in its opening chapters, this gives Orca a real mystique and appeal that makes you think Brust really is on the rebound with this series after all. And reading this story I got the impression that Brust probably drew a lot of inspiration for it from the real-life savings and loan debacle of the late 1980s. Can’t prove that as I haven't asked Brust personally, but if it’s so, it would be a fine example of how to go far afield in drawing inspiration for a fantasy novel.

Unfortunately, it becomes a bore all too quickly. As the book trudges along, too much of the story is played out in dialogue and exposition, and many of these scenes seem to go on interminably. It's just talk, talk, talk, talk. And hell, I know a good conspiracy theory is supposed to be incomprehensible, but this is ridiculous! There are so many names, offices, government departments, and shady secrets to keep track of you might need to take notes. (I did, for what little good it did me.) In the end it’s easiest to wait for the climactic chapters when all is revealed; once again, in a scene of endless exposition. But fans of the series will want to read Orca, if only for a surprising reveal involving a major character at the end.

So while Brust cannot be accused of tossing this novel off, which was the inescapable impression left by Athyra, he’s still a far cry from rising to the occasion. One hopes for a stronger Vlad story in the future. Then again, this is the seventh volume in the series, and it’s a rare series indeed that can maintain its quality beyond even book three. Perhaps fans should start accustoming themselves to the likelihood that Vlad Taltos’ best adventures are behind him.

Reissued in 2003 as half of the omnibus edition The Book of Athyra. Followed by Dragon.