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Teckla by Steven Brust3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsSteven Brust’s third Vlad Taltos novel shows the author so warmed up to his formula that he could probably turn out a Taltos story in his sleep. And what’s nice about this novel is the way in which Brust keeps his saga fresh by changing his approach in small but significant ways. Teckla is a novel of personal and political turmoil, featuring some of the most genuine emotions to be found in a fantasy novel this side of George R. R. Martin. And in allowing his series to mature, Brust has thankfully erased some of the more irritating aspects of its prior installments — most notably, its gratingly self-conscious wisecracky humor. What he’s replaced it with might strike some fans as a little too serious, but in the end, Teckla proves to be every bit as satisfying.

Vlad Taltos, human assassin in a world of scheming, long-lived Dragaerans, is settling nicely into a life of domesticity with his wife Cawti and their familiars, the dragonish jheregs Loiosh and Rocza. Then out of the blue, an unexpected murder in another part of town envelops Cawti in a life she had left behind. Vlad watches with growing anger and concern as Cawti becomes involved with a gang of revolutionaries — to whom the murdered man belonged — who have this crazy idea that they’re going to overturn the cyclic rule of noble houses that have governed the city of Adrilankha for centuries. Vlad, of course, thinks they’re all crazy, and that their overweening sense of self-importance has blinded them to the realities of life in the city, where crimelords follow strict codes of honor and rabble rousers generally have brief life expectancies. And his fears for Cawti’s safety, mingled with his anger at her involvement as well as her taciturnity regarding that involvement, begin straining their marriage. 

The revolutionaries have run afoul of a small-time crimelord named Hersh, whose whores and pimps they’re putting out of work. Hersh has one of the revolutionaries killed, but that only seems to fuel their righteousness. It is their intent to call loads of attention to themselves and bring the Empress herself into this little conflict.

Brust’s story is a little too talky through much of its length, and the external conflict that intrudes upon Vlad and the city is busier than it probably needs to be. But it’s the intense internal conflict that rages through Vlad that forms the book’s emotional foundation. Vlad is faced with a threat to his own life when he intervenes between Hersh and the revolutionaries. But worse than that is the very real fear that he is alienating Cawti by his rejection of what he sees as blind fanaticism to a cause that treats ideals as more important than the people they presume to help. (Some of the argument scenes have a verisimilitude that will cause real discomfort to any reader who is or has ever been married.) To his eternal credit, Brust, in the end, creates an unusually nuanced story in which there are no clear heroes or villians, no obviously right course of action that will satisfy everyone. When Vlad confronts Kelly, the leader of the revolutionaries, Brust allows Kelly to express his views succinctly. The man’s candor and integrity disarm Vlad, who is forced to give serious thought to views other than his own. For a man who’s used to solving problems with a couple of throwing knives, it’s a disorienting experience. In the end, there are still unresolved problems to work out, and that simply adds to the book’s believability.

In all, Teckla may not be everyone’s idea of rollicking fun, but it’s certainly a grown-up novel that shores up Brust’s reputation as a top-drawer fantasist. At this rate, it could be a while before this series settles into the doldrums that overcome so many fantasy sagas by their third novels.

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