Ginger’s Narcissistic One-Body Book Club Presents: Letters from the Empire

One of the things I really like about following a long-running book series is that eventually, the characters and even the language of the stories start to feel like home. They are family, in a way, foibles and all. Once I really get into a series, once I’ve really committed to an author’s world, I find myself looking forward to new entries as if I were waiting for letters from a well-loved friend or relative who’s travelled to someplace far away — I wait for their stories, to be sure, but most of all I wait for them to tell the stories.

For me, a good book series doesn’t just exploit the ol’ soap opera cliffhanger to keep its readers wanting more (although occasionally it might). No, a good series invests its readers in the lives of its characters for the sake of the characters themselves, and in its created world because that world is interesting for its own sake and worth exploring. A good series entry stands on its own as a good story, but it also holds the promise of other stories.

I love (for example) Steven Brust’s Dragaera books (the Vlad Taltos novels and his tribute to Dumas, the Khaavren romances). I was hooked from the first few pages of Jhereg, and have never stopped wanting to read them (and re-read them). The attractions are many in these books. Brust is a smart writer, deep and clever in equal measure. The world he’s created and the people who inhabit it are fascinating. There is a whiff of the epic about them, but the epic is framed here as the personal — complex systems worked out in the lives of immediate people, so that even the great players in sweeping political drama are also present individuals rather than historical figures defined only by the features of their purported “greatness” (See: Morrolan, Sethra Lavode, etc.). While Vlad Taltos is often a thoroughly (and rather wonderfully) unreliable narrator, he is also a perfect POV character for this sort of storytelling — even when we know he’s lying to himself and/or us and/or everyone around him, there is something nakedly honest in the way he does it. He is as much a wink at unreliable narration as he is anything else, which makes him ideal for the kinds of caper stories he’s telling. Each book stands well on its own, and still draws the reader toward the others. I always leave them wanting to know more, imagining what further stories there are to tell.

Also: These books are just so damn much fun! It’s obvious that the author enjoyed writing them, and that enjoyment is infectious.

Given all of the above, I’m sure you can understand why I was so incredibly happy to receive my copy of Hawkthe newest Vlad Taltos novel, this past week. I read it in one sitting, and I plan to read it again (and again…and again…much better than Cats, etc.).

[Note: if you haven’t read these books, none of what I’m about to say next is going to mean much to you, and it will contain very mild spoilers. Go read the books. No, go ahead. I’ll wait. You’ll thank me later.]

Hawk was, for me, first and foremost a good letter from Dragaera. All of the folks I remember are still up to their old tricks, but they keep living and changing (certainly Vlad and Cawti’s son, young Vlad Norathar, is getting big!). It was really great to find out how Kragar’s doing (and worrying to see him hurt) — I’d missed him, both in the usual way in which everyone always misses Kragar and in the nostalgic, homesick sense. I’ve come to know these characters so well that even only a little time spent with Morrolan and Sethra and Aliera is enough, and it takes very little to appreciate their presence in the story — they appear, they act just like themselves, and it’s really wonderful to see it. There’s a lurking sense of something big coming over the horizon, but that big thing doesn’t overshadow the fun in the story itself.

As letters from friends and family go, it wasn’t my favorite or the best — I can think of others that moved me more, or that felt tighter as stories. Just the same, it was a good letter, and I’m happy to have read it. I got to hear from my old friends, and wow, look at what they’ve been up to! Vlad keeps growing, and there’s something especially terrific about that. He hasn’t lost his bad habits, but one of the things that makes him a great character (beyond the narration stuff) is that the reader gets to watch this flawed, troubled, clever man become an even more interesting flawed, troubled, and clever man over the course of a pretty difficult and exciting life.

The other thing I adore about reading a lot of books by a single author is that one eventually comes to learn quite a lot about what that author reads. It’s no accident that I enjoy Brust’s work — after all, he apparently likes to read some of the same things I do. :) Also, anyone who willingly co-writes a Hegelian epistolary novel (Freedom and Necessity) and does it well scores points with me. The thing that made me laugh out loud at the beginning of Hawk (and that would have earned this book some good will with me no matter how the rest of it went), is that Brust and I apparently also share similar taste in television shows. As much as I love the sense of reading letters from home in a book series, I also love the sense of sharing a world with the authors of those books. Such fun!

About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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4 Responses to Ginger’s Narcissistic One-Body Book Club Presents: Letters from the Empire

  1. bob f says:

    Now you’ve got me intrigued about this series, especially since I’ve just re-read (after a 40 yr intermission) Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which seems to be the reverse of the Vlad Taltos series. My frustration with Foundation was that it covers such a large sweep of time, and so individual characters appear and disappear like small towns on a fast drive across the midwest. Many of them seem to be in the book simply to perform some role required by the plot line. Not a lot of depth to them. So I look forward to getting to know Vlad. Thanks for the recommendation.


    • If you dig a good heist story and a lot of sarcasm, the Vlad Taltos books are for you, Bob. :) I had some of the same frustration with the Foundation books (although I do adore Asmiov). It’s not an accident that the comparison reviewers make is between Brust and Zelazny (if you haven’t read Zelazny’s Amber books, you really should!)

      One thing I love is that some of the questions about characters in Vlad’s stories (like what exactly the deal is with Morrolan and Aliera and Sethra, who are major players in the Empire — and who Vlad treats, often, as just his buddies) are eventually answered in the Khaavren books on the grander historical stage. If you enjoy the language and the fun of Dumas’ Three Musketeers and its sequels, the Khaavren novels are marvelous. Brust has created two equally compelling ways into the same imagined world, and they effectively function as two lenses, or two levels of resolution, or whatever, for viewing the same events. Vlad consistently pulls the grand down to the personal, and the Khaavren books follow the personal through the grand.

      Obviously I could go on forever about this, which is a good sign that I now need to go on back and start reading all of these books again! I should mention that they get better and better over time.


      • bob f says:

        On a completely different topic, I just listened to a Radiolab episode focused on Eugene Thacker’s book, In the Dust of This Planet. It was an interesting 15 minutes listening to a philosopher with a sense of humor talking about nihilism.


      • There’s nothing funnier than nihilism! :) I clearly need to work out more — workout time is podcast time, and I haven’t kept up with Radiolab or TAL or Snap Judgement or any of the other shows that used to get me through the next mile/lift/pushup/whatever…


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