No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, December 01, 2001

Issola -- Steven Brust

Issola is the ninth volume, both by publication date and by internal chronology, in Brust’s ‘Vlad Taltos’ sequence. Those familiar with the setting (Vlad is a human assassin, retired, in the elvish Dragaeran Empire) may find in this novel a welcome return to the witty, mannered heroics of the earlier books in the series. I fear those who have but lately discovered Vlad Taltos and his friends and familiars will find Issola rather more opaque, though hopefully no less enjoyable.

The Taltos novels are all named for one of Dragaera’s seventeen noble houses: the Issola are noted for ‘grace, elegance and manners’, but also for the subtle strike. Vlad Taltos, living rough in the northern forest after the events of Orca, is tracked down by none other than the impeccably-groomed Lady Teldra, the Issola chatelaine of his friend Morrolan. This, it transpires, is no mere social visit, but a call to arms.

Morrolan and his cousin Aliera have been captured by the Jenoine, hated former rulers more powerful than gods who are rumoured to have created the Dragaeran race. Vlad Taltos, with the sorcerous assistance of undead Sethra Lavode and the diplomatic skills of Lady Teldra, is determined to rescue his friends. As the quest commences, it rapidly becomes clear that his career as an assassin may not be over after all.

Vlad, returning to a broader social milieu after his time in the literal and figurative wilderness, begins to mellow somewhat from the archetypal wise-guy loner. Perhaps it’s the company he keeps: at any rate, the ice has begun to thaw, and he’s a more sympathetic character than he has been for several volumes. The novel’s final, shocking conflict suggests interesting times ahead for the erstwhile assassin, and more epic themes than the Chandleresque intrigues of earlier novels.

In Issola, Brust reveals more about Dragaera than ever before. Apparent inconsistencies in the backstory are clarified, and obscure utterances assume new meaning. The imprisonment of Vlad’s two friends is as plain a case of alien abduction as ever occurred in a fantasy novel. Fantasy? While the setting is certainly fantastical - sorcery, gods and demons, and of course the pointy-eared Dragaerans are elves - this is also a novel of alien invasion, grounded as much in genetic engineering and psychosocial experimentation as in legend, heroism and enchantment. What’s recounted here as ancient history - including some fascinating insights on the role of the gods, and the truth behind the instinctive superiority of Dragaerans - would be the mythology of another, more magically-inclined world.

And, yes, Deverra makes a fleeting appearance.

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