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Athyra by Steven Brust1.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsAthyra is a shockingly disappointing entry in the Vlad Taltos series that shows Brust attempting a radical change to his approach to writing this saga, with woeful results. On a positive note, the nonstop sarcastic wisecracks — which I for one have always considered one of the stories’ biggest impediments to greatness — are gone, and the overall tone is more dramatic and less comedic. But this novel is likely to satisfy fans far less than previous volumes. It’s a sloppy, thrown-together mess that feels dashed off and e-mailed in. There’s an inescapable feeling here that Brust isn’t engaged, as if he’s just gotten tired after three years of reading loads of impatient, “when’s the next one coming out?” fan letters and pounded a book out just to shut everyone up. Fans of Vlad’s adventures deserve better, much better.

Athyra takes place very shortly after the events in Phoenix, which led to Vlad’s retiring from his career as an assassin and fleeing the city of Adrilankha. And in fact it’s not even told from Vlad’s point of view at all, but from that of a peasant boy named Savn, who lives in the hamlet of Smallcliff, into which Vlad wanders one day to the consternation of the locals. It appears that the local lord, Baron Smallcliff, is in fact the undead Loraan, whose displeasure Vlad incurred in the previous volume. And Loraan will stop at nothing to avenge himself upon Vlad.

I’ve never seen Brust’s plotting this lazy and indifferent. First, there seems no real reason for Savn to become fascinated by Vlad and drawn into a cautious alliance — if not exactly a friendship — with him when all the other villagers view Vlad with anything ranging from outright disdain to open hostility. (Vlad’s arrival has coincided with the murder of a local, that Vlad attributes to Loraan.) Other than that the story requires it, that is. And Loraan, for a guy who will stop at nothing, certainly takes his time and exercises little sense while getting around to stopping at the nothing. First, he has a group of militiamen burst into Smallcliff’s tavern and try to waylay Vlad in broad daylight. Vlad escapes but is badly wounded, and Savn, who is apprenticed to the local healer, tends to him in a cave that happens to have a passage that leads right into Loraan’s manor.

But this passage has to be accessed from the inside. And so Savn, who still isn’t sure if he believes Vlad’s story about Loraan being an evil undead creature and all, foolishly marches right up to the manor house and allows himself to be thrown into Loraan’s dungeons. Loraan, in the meantime, has gotten around to hiring an assassin with a Morganti dagger — that annihilates the soul as well as the body, preventing resurrection — to take out Vlad. Had Loraan done this in the first place, Vlad would have been warm buttered toast in the tavern, seeing as how badly a few run-of-the-mill swordsmen left him. Loraan, it seems, joins the Legion of Conveniently Stupid Villians that genre fiction has had more than enough of, thank you very much.

You see? Brust allows such a raft of illogical plot contrivances to sail through these pages that only the worst sort of insouciance can account for how far this entry in the series falls from its usual high standard of swash-and-buckle storytelling. Good grief, even the action scenes are flat. The climactic confrontation sequence is one of the most confusingly written fight scenes I’ve ever used a machete to hack my way through. And nothing leading up to it has been exactly what you could call suspenseful.

Only here and there does Brust’s real talent come out of hiding. Some passages capture local color nicely. The tavern, itself a fantasy cliché second only to dragons and dark lords, becomes a vivid and bustling place under Brust’s descriptive hand. And it’s all readable enough. But overall, this attempt to change the tone and the artistic direction of what has already become a popular, established series must be considered a failure, and one which all too well illustrates the truth of the maxim about what you shouldn’t do if somethin’ ain’t broke.

Currently in print as half of the omnibus edition The Book of Athyra. Followed by Orca.