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Vallista
by Steven Brust
Tor, $25.99, 334 pp
Published: October 2017

Vallista is the 15th novel in the Vlad Taltos series about a young assassin and his dealings with elven Dragaerans, Eastern humans, and an array of gods and monsters. Going by the fact that Vlad is still wearing his Phoenix stone amulet in this story, it takes place before the game-changing events of Hawk (review here) — possibly just before. In the Cycle of Great Houses the Vallista are nearly opposite the reigning Phoenix House, which theoretically places them at their nadir of power and influence at this time. Maybe that’s one reason why they have been almost entirely absent from the storyline thus far. It may also account for the terrible irony underlying the plot: a Vallista has managed to accomplish a long-standing goal of the House, but the process is bedeviled by bad timing.  

Vlad is quietly minding his own business when the child Devera shows up, begging for his help. Since she has on more than one occasion saved his life, and since she calls him Uncle Vlad, he really has no choice in the matter; he has to follow her. Since the kid seems to be able to dance through space and time, it’s hard to conceive how she could possible need the help of a mere human, no matter how skillful that human is with a dagger. But sure enough, she is in trouble, and as she explains at one point, there was no one else she could turn to.

Before long, Vlad, his jhereg familiar Loiosh, and Loiosh’s mate Rocza are all trapped in a house with too many mirrors and a non-linear construction. A vague ghost, a furtive host, a romantic triangle, a manifold mystery, a visit to the Paths of the Dead, a relatively civil encounter with Verra the Demon Goddess, and numerous attempts on his life keep Vlad very busy.

According to The Cycle, “Vallista rends and then rebuilds” while “Jhereg feeds on others’ kills.” While he is exploring, Vlad briefly sees an actual vallista in the wild behaving in the way that won its epithetical description in the poem. It’s a nice touch, and it helped me understand — several things.

I have two favorite scenes in this book. One is a conversation between Vlad and a dancer.  The other is when Vlad has flashbacks to former lifetimes; these glimpses reveal hyperlinks in the stories, and several long-standing questions get answered. Of course, new ones pop up to take their place. Some of mine are along the lines of “HUH????” Others are more articulate, but time IS running short for pieces to fall in place: only Chreotha, Tsalmoth, and Lyorn remain of the Cycle.

On more than one occasion I have finished reading a new Vlad Taltos novel and promptly started it again in order to enjoy all the subtleties with the big picture in my mind’s eye. Vallista rated an immediate re-read. As a bonus, I caught some puns and jokes I’d missed the first time through, for with Vallista Steven Brust at his mischievous best. There aren’t many authors who can sustain this level of excitement and quality of writing over a long series. For some of us, the Vlad Taltos adventures are like the spell in the Magician’s book in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader that Lucy reads “for the refreshment of the spirit.” I suspect the story Lucy read involved less knifework and wordplay, but some of our spirits savour a challenge.  – Chris Wozney

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