The mystery of Precipice Manor
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 23 October 2017
"Vallista" is the fifteenth novel in Steven Brust's "Vlad Taltos" fantasy series.
Stephen Brust has written two series set several hundred years apart in the same fantasy world. This book describes itself on the cover as a new "novel of Vlad Taltos" and as mentioned it is the fifteenth novel in that series. It describes how former assassin and crimelord Vlad Taltos tries to solve the mystery of a magical house called Precipice Manor.
If you are new to the Vlad Taltos/Khaavren universe, I would advise against starting with this book. The best place to start reading about Vlad is either the first published book in his series, "
", or the chronologically first one, "
The hero of the other series set in this world, Khaavren, is a supporting character in some of the Vlad Taltos novels. The best place to start reading about Khaavren is in Brust's first book about him, which is a marvellous parody of Dumas's
The Three Musketeers
, called "
The Phoenix Guards
Yes, I did say that the two series are set several hundred years apart, and yes, I also said that the hero of the other series appears in some of the books in this one. That's because although some characters including Vlad are human (e.g. Homo Sapiens Sapiens) the majority of characters in both series including Khaavren belong to a race who can live for thousands of years.
All the "Vlad Taltos" novels and "Khaavren" romances are set in a world of magic, where there are several intelligent species, including two types of men and women. Homo Sapiens Sapiens like ourselves are usually referred to as "Easterners," the other type of men and women call themselves humans but are usually referred to in the books as "Dragaerans" or occasionally as Elves. Dragaerans are taller than humans, live much longer (a couple of thousand years), and then after death are eligible for reincarnation if they have not annoyed a God too much or had their soul destroyed by a "Morganti" weapon or a "Great Weapon" such as the sword "Lady Teldra" which Vlad now carries.
"Morganti" weapons do not just kill you, they also destroy your soul. "Great Weapons," of which there are supposed to be no more than seventeen, are particularly powerful Morganti weapons which are at least to some degree sentient, can decide whether to destroy your soul or not, and which can seriously harm even gods.
All Dragaerans belong to one of seventeen "Great Houses" named after animals of the fantasy world in which the novels are set. Fourteen of the fifteen novels featuring Vlad Taltos, including "Vallista," are named after one of these great houses, usually also featuring a member of that house in a prominent role: if Steven Brust is planning to write a novel for each house we are five sixths of the way through this very long-lasting series (the first book was written 22 years ago) with the three remaining books to finish the story being "Creotha," "Tsalmoth" and "Lyorn."
Each of the animals for which the great houses are named epitomises two characteristics, and the houses tend to have a preferred occupation to which those characteristics are relevant. For examples Dragons symbolise war and conquest, Dzur (which look a bit like tigers) represent heroism and honor, hence Dragaeran members of House Dragon and House Dzur (known as Dragonlords and Dzurlords) tend to be soldiers. "Tecla" look like mice and symbolise cowardice and fertility: members of House Tecla are peasants. "Iorich" epitomise justice and retribution, and members of that house tend to be judges or lawyers. "Chreotha" represent forethought and ensnarement, and members of that house are merchants. Hawks symbolises Observation and Perception, and at least some members of that house are powerful sorcerers. The Orca (Killer Whale) represents brutality and mercantilism: members of that house are sailors, pirates or - wait for it - bankers, and "Jhereg" representing Greed and Corruption are gangsters or assassins.
To Dragaerans, the Vallista, which is a kind of insectlike reptile with four legs and two little arms, symbolises Creation and Destruction. I cannot remember any previous members of this Dragaeran house cropping up in the series to date, but the person who designed Precipice Manor is a Vallista called Tethia, and there are references in this novel which suggests that Dragaeran members of House Vallistas are often architects or builders.
The hero of this book Vladimir, Count Szurke (a.k.a. Baronet Vladimir Taltos), began his career as an assassin and crimelord within the Jhereg organisation (mafia). Several books later, Vlad went on the run from the Jhereg, who put a massive price on his head, after developing an unfortunate case of principles, which he tries very hard to hide. Vlad's issues with the Jhereg Council were resolved in the book before this one, "Hawk" but there is still a substantial Jhereg faction out for his blood.
Early in his career Vlad acquired a companion and familiar called Loiosh, to whom he is telepathically linked, and Loiosh later acquired a mate, Rocza. Loiosh and Rocza are actual Jhereg - that is to say, they are small intelligent flying reptiles.
Initially Vlad dealt with the fact that the Jhereg had put a huge price on his head by a combination of using powerful magic to hide from them, staying out of their way whenever possible, and being ready to defend himself.
But he is willing to take risks to protect his family and friends, and at the start of this book a request for help from an unusual child named Devera who is the daughter of Vlad;s old friend Aliera, leads him to Precipice Manor.
The chronological sequence of the "Vlad Taltos" series jumps about all over the place, both between books and within most of the books, with "Vallista" being the most extreme example. Furthermore, there are all sorts of little nuggets buried in these stories which don't fully make sense if you have not read previous books. I personally think it is best to read these stories in the order they were published.
You can, alternatively, make an argument for reading these books in chronological sequence. However, there isn't an "official" chronological sequence, and attempts to create one, including mine which I'm about to give you, are subjective. That's because most of the books contain things which happen at very different times. For example, if the three main stories in "Tiassa" had been published as separate books instead of together, I would have placed them fourth, thirteenth, and fifteenth in the sequence.
"Vallista" is the hardest book of all fifteen to place into the chronological sequence and any explanation of why would be a spoiler. Let's just say that I have put it at the end because the point in his personal timeline at which Vlad is narrating this novel appears to be subsequent to the events of "Hawk."
Here is the list of Vlad Taltos novels in publication order, with the chronological place I have assigned to each book in brackets after:
1) Jhereg (4th)
2) Yendi (3rd)
3) Tecla (5th)
4) Taltos (1st)
5) Phoenix (6th)
6) Athyra (8th)
7) Orca (9th)
8) Dragon (2nd)
9) Issola (10th)
10) Dzur (11th)
11) Jhegaala (7th)
12) Iorich (12th)
13) Tiassa (13th)
14) Hawk (14th).
15) Vallista (15th)
So in other words, the chronological sequence approximates to:
The five Khaavren romances, in sequence, are
1) "The Phoenix Guards" (equivalent to "The Three Musketeers")
2) "Five Hundred Years After" (equivalent to "Twenty years after")
Then a trilogy "The Viscount of Adrilankha" (equivalent to "The Viscount of Bragelonne") which comprises
3) The Paths of the Dead
4) The Lord of Castle Black
5) Sethra Lavode.
Overall I found both the "Taltos" novels and the "Khaavren Romances" very entertaining: I recommend both series and this book.
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