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Taltos by Steven Brust3 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsThe fourth Vlad Taltos novel is one of the series’ slightest, but it’s highly thought of by Brust’s fans as a good jumping-on point for new readers to the saga. At just under 200 pages, the book doesn’t demand much from readers, and, following the growth that Brust had shown in Teckla, that’s a tad disappointing. But it makes for good escapism, even though one could appropriately chide Brust for phoning it in. In my Teckla review I noted that Brust could probably dash off a novel about Vlad in his sleep. Taltos is that novel.

Taltos tells the story of How It All Began, more or less. Across a handful of interwoven story threads — an unnecessary conceit in a book this short and one that occasionally brings equally unnecessary confusion — we learn how Vlad first met Morollan, the Dragaeran lord who lives in a floating castle; Lady Sethra Levode, the vampiress who inhabits the feared Dzur Castle; and Kiera the sexy thief. Simultaneously Brust offers us a story of Vlad’s earliest days as an assassin while working under Neilar, where he first meets his soon-to-be right-hand man Kragar. What’s more, Brust opens each chapter with italicized text detaling yet a third storyline, in which Vlad and Loiosh are preparing an extremely difficult spell. (But Brust does do an ingenious job of incorporating that one into the main story at a key point.) The juxtaposing of all these narratives is at first disorienting, but once you get used to how Brust is doing it, they're entertaining enough. And yet the very act of breaking up the storylines in this way undermines both their pacing and dramatic tension.

In what I suppose could be considered the main narrative thread, Vlad arrives at Morollan’s Castle Black while pursuing one of his employees, who’s absconded with some money. A terse introduction to Morollan and Lady Sethra leads to a job for Vlad, retrieving a staff housing the trapped soul of Morollan’s cousin Aliera, whom you’ve already met if you’ve read this series’ first two entries.

Vlad succeeds, but he needs Morollan’s help. After all, Vlad’s an assassin, not a thief. So when Lady Sethra and Morollan try to persuade Vlad to undertake the second half of the job — a little matter of trekking off to the perilous Paths of the Dead to petition the gods to restore Aliera — Vlad insists on Morollan’s accompanying him for guidance and protection. Morollan agrees, even though he barely escaped a prior journey and most certainly might not now. Vlad suddenly has cause to wonder just how deeply in over his head he really is.

This all could have made for a powerful quest epic, but it’s clear Brust wanted to avoid making it too pompous by keeping it short, sweet, and on the money. An admirable aspiration, to be sure, but why interrupt the flow by bouncing back and forth between the main story and the one involving Vlad’s first hired kill? The net effect is not unlike surfing back and forth between two Vlad movies that happen to be playing at the same time, and rather than watch one at a time you try to follow both at once. Each of these stories could have made its own first-rate novel, and probably should have.

But overall, I suppose fans will be pleased. There are exciting scenes here, and the humor is brisk as always. I’d still recommend Yendi over this one as an onramp to the series proper. Though it fills in gaps in the early timeline and thus has special value for continuity maniacs, Taltosis better read maybe as your second or third Vlad experience.

Currently in print as part of an omnibus trade paperback edition titled The Book of Taltos. Followed by Phoenix.