Mighty One, We Have Lost Us Another

Olivia de Havilland, the last of Golden Age Hollywood’s leading ladies, has passed on at the age of 104.

Dame Olivia was in many movies that are flat-out iconic–Melanie in Gone With the Wind, Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood, and Arabella, paramour of the deathless Captain Blood would be examples most notable to us nerds–but she was great in almost everything she put her mind to. Some of my favorites are Hermia in the theatrical but hilarious A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a tough farmer in The Proud Rebel, put-upon bride to the philandering Robert Mitchum in Not as a Stranger, and the timid heiress of The Heiress among them.

While everyone always raves about sexy femme fatales, de Havilland apparently once remarked that she preferred playing “good” girls instead–as it was more difficult and rewarding to give these characters nuance and expression.

God rest your soul, Lady.

Vallista – Vlad Taltos #I Dunno – by Steven Brust (repost)

Vallista is the 15th book in Brusts’s supposedly-17-book Dragaera Cycle, which follows the meanderings of Easterner (human) Jhereg (fantasy Mafia gangster) Vlad Taltosh and his wisecracking (but not very bright) familiar Loiosh as he swashbuckles, cape-swishes, assassinates, and consorts with necromancers, wizards, warriors, Dragons, past lives, and unborn gods.

Sounds epic, right? Even more so when I say that all of the above happens in book 1 (Jhereg) alone?

Here’s the thing. Brust may have had a coherent plan for the series as a whole, but a) he killed his own narrative momentum after the first five or so books; and b) systematically dismantled his main character. The series concept starts off as: Fantasy-Mafia Assassin Gang boss and his ferocious wizard/warrior friends have adventures (plus or minus they save the world).
But, this gets tossed aside in favor of: Ex-Mafia Assassin Gang Boss On The Run, Chased By Fantasy-Mafia Assassins Who Absolutely Will Not Quit Trying To Kill Me, SHEESH GUYS ALREADY–also a quite good framework to hang an overarching story on…except that there isn’t one. Brust gets his enjoyment from spending time in his created universe, drawing pictures and asking questions–not in answering those questions, or filling in between the lines.

Even this could be overlooked, though, with a sufficiently compelling protagonist–but therein lies the problem. Systematically stripping Vlad of everything that made him who he is, everything that he cares about, wants to live for, or knows, hurts the story.–all the more so because he doesn’t find anything to replace it with. Post-Jhereg Boss Vlad should have grown larger and expanded his scope to an epic/heroic scale–become a monarch, learned to use his godslaying dagger, taken command of the armies of the East. Instead, he’s an empty, passive shell of a character with no motivation and no understanding of the stakes of the overall conflict (if there are any…it’s implied at the end of this book that there aren’t).

Compare to the Dresden Files: there is a main character who is dynamic but still very personable; book by book plots which are engrossing and fast-paced; an overarching series plot which is being slowly teased out but which is promised to end in an absolutely epic finale; action, excitement, adventure, romance, magic, and a wise-cracking hero. Vlad Taltos might have a Great Weapon named Godslayer, but it’s beat-up Harry Dresden in a raggedy old duster that makes the powers that be walk warily. Man, I really want the next Dresden book. [Even though this is a repost, that’s a sentence that’s going to be evergreen.]

Brust has been writing the Dragaera cycle since 1987. Vallista was released in 2017. That’s a long time for a man to get tired of writing the same damn book over and over again.

Vallista itself is three hundred and thirty-odd pages long. Vlad is asked (on about page twenty) to discontinue eating caramelized onions by Devera to rescue her from a house which she has gotten trapped in. Vlad gets trapped in it too, (page 77) and spends the rest of the book wandering around and trying to figure things out. The house is magic (duh) and is designed as a nexus to connect different worlds for easy travel. The problem with the design is that once it’s designed, it has to actually be made, and this took filicide to accomplish. At the present, the house connects past to present and present to the Halls of the Dead, and via acting as a trap to those who are born unstuck in time. Vlad breaks the trap (page 328), allowing Devera and the house’s motive Girl In The Box to escape, and then kills the SOB who came up with the idea in the first place. Oops, spoiler, I guess. Vlad goes back home, to continue hanging out and eating fried sausages with onions but without ketchup, and Devera goes back to the important business of showing up randomly in Brust’s other books. Y’know, if he was going to commit to the bit, she’d probably pop up on his blog, too….

In other words, this book takes three hundred pages to do what a competent author would have done in a hundred, and that’s including swordplay and witty banter; and that’s all I’ll say on that matter. Brust has reasons for not writing adventurous action in his adventure action fantasy series–and I think I’ve set them out above. The man is freaking bored–and who wouldn’t be, the series is flat, the setting is dull, and the protagonist has had his personality surgically removed.

Now, I’ve been criticizing this series as a whole for not going back to the promises made in book one–explaining Vlad’s history in his prior life as the founder of House Jhereg/the Fantasy Mafia. I’m going to criticize it some more for doing that exact thing.

It’s in this book, and it is an extremely disappointing two pages.

I’ve also criticized the series for not paying any attention to the overall arc, and suspected that Brust didn’t actually, you know, have one. Well, it turns out that there is!…it’s Devera. No, really. It’s Devera. That’s the answer.

On second thought, Brust isn’t actually tired of this series. He’s just lazy.

Rated: I was going to rate it 1 out of 17, but, man, that’s kind of harsh. One out of five silver cats with purple eyes.